A national priority: Efforts to improve quality and expand enrolment continue, although they will likely require reforms

The government has made it clear that education is a priority in South Africa, with more public resources going to the education system than any other sector. In the 2013 budget, it allocates some R232.5bn ($28bn), or 21.9% of the total R1.06trn ($121bn). Of education expenditure, R1bn ($121m) will go to teacher recruitment and up to R8bn ($975m) on upgrades to facilities, partly via the education infrastructure grant (EIG). The EIG was established in 2011 to accelerate the construction, upgrading and maintenance of schools, including ensuring that they have adequate power and water supplies. The 2013 general budget also includes more money for expanding bursary schemes and establishing no-fee schools, and around R700m ($85m) for developing technical secondary schools. The government’s emphasis on education is justified. The country needs more jobs for its young people. South Africa’s unemployment rate stands at around 25%, according to official sources, but unofficial estimates run as high as 50%. Youth unemployment runs higher, at around 50%, according to the official 2011 estimate. Furthermore, government figures suggest that there are 3m people between the ages of 18 and 24 who are not in employment, education or training. As a result, there is increasing pressure for spending to be matched by reform to encourage greater innovation, better monitoring and assessment, and a focus on improving education for the poorest, which lags far behind international standards.

Sector Breakdown

Reforms in 2009 split the Department of Education into the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), responsible for the school and the post-school systems respectively. Under the South African Schools Act of 1996, there are nine years of compulsory education (grades one to nine), starting at age six or seven. To progress to tertiary education, a student must complete another three years of secondary schooling, finishing with matriculation exams known as the “matric”, similar to British A-Levels. There is also the option of taking a pre-school year known as grade 0 or grade R (for reception).

As of 2011, the last year for which official statistics were available, there were a total of 12.68m pupils enrolled in the basic education system, attending 30,992 schools with a total of 441,128 educators (defined by the South African Council for Educators as “any person who teaches, educates or trains other persons or who provides professional education services” – so a broader definition than “teacher”). While the vast majority attend ordinary public schools – some 11.81m or 93.1%, according to government statistics – the private sector has a significant presence as well, accounting for almost 480,000 students, or 3.8%. The other pupils were in early childhood development centres (284,600, 2.2%) and special schools (108,200, 0.9%).

The nation’s 24,365 ordinary public schools had 390,074 educators, giving a pupil-educator ratio of 30.3:1, while independent schools had 30,534 and a ratio of 15.7:1, according to government sources. Smaller class sizes and a higher concentration of teachers are two aspects that make the private school system appealing to many parents, and indeed help many independent institutions outperform their government-run counterparts. The overall gross enrolment ratio (GER) for R-12 schools was 89%; that is, the number of pupils in school was equivalent to under nine-tenths of the population of school age, indicating a significant level of drop-outs and non-attendance.

Oecd Recommendations

A 2013 report on education and labour market outcomes in South Africa by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a grouping of affluent countries, acknowledged the progress South Africa has made since 1994 in terms of economic and social development, but stated that weaknesses in the education system are “a critical problem” and are preventing it from reaching its potential. The organisation stated that average educational outcomes are substandard, and that they contribute to high unemployment and an oversupply of unskilled labour. The disparities in education and the fact that a large proportion of the population attend poorly performing schools exacerbate inequalities. The OECD made a number of recommendations for education reform and development. These included rebalancing spending towards essential investments in infrastructure and enhancing the supply of teaching materials with a focus on the most disadvantaged schools. Personnel should be another priority area, the organisation said. The OECD also suggested that South Africa enhance monitoring of performance by greater use of international testing and measurement, and by joining the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS). Most OECD member countries carry out PISA testing, which assesses the mathematical, scientific and literacy capabilities of 15-year-olds. TALIS, meanwhile, is an international survey of teaching and learning that places emphasis on cross-country comparison, and thus helps members develop their education systems using best-practice models from fellow members, addressing common challenges.

Other recommendations include reforms to vocational education and training, including apprenticeships, to tackle youth unemployment, which runs at around 50% and is seen as one of the country’s most pressing social and economic challenges. The OECD suggests that tax credits for companies taking on trainees, streamlining of administration and greater use of public-private partnerships (PPPs) could all be beneficial.

Test Results

Official test results from December 2012 for 7m pupils in 24,000 schools revealed that the relative level of education often falls as pupils progress through the system. The average first-grade student (aged six to seven) scored 68% on mathematics tests and 58% on a test in their first language, scores that drop to 13% and 43% for ninth-graders (aged 14 to 15). Even in areas that had seen significant improvement, the erosion in performance was worrying. In 2012, 37% of third-graders scored more than 50% in maths tests, up from 17% in 2011, but average scores fell by 2% for ninth-graders. Still, the conclusions were not all negative. Panyaza Lesufi, a spokesman for the Department of Basic Education, noted that the results showed narrowing inequality and high attendance.

Schools tend to be weak in parts of the country where “bantustans” existed – territories set up for black South Africans as part of the apartheid system. These areas tended to have poorer physical infrastructure and lower investment in teacher training. The legacy of apartheid will take a long time to erase from the education system, but the rising proportion of black students at further education institutions indicates progress is being made, though much of this growth is likely to come from the middle class; access to further education remains limited for many of the poorest.

Higher & Further Education

The higher education system is perhaps the single healthiest part of the overall sector. Several public universities have excellent international reputations for both teaching and research (see analysis). As demand for higher education rises, there are likely to be increasing opportunities for the private sector to expand, though issues of standards and reputation will need to be addressed.

“By all indicators, our sector is performing much better than other parts of the system, though further education does face huge challenges as well,” Jeffrey Mabelebele, CEO of Higher Education South Africa (HESA), an association of public universities, told OBG. “Many of the challenges that universities face are largely related to the substandard performance of schools and students’ under-preparedness for higher education. However, research is globally competitive and responds to South Africa’s economic challenges. We can also attract top academics.”

As of 2012, South Africa had 23 public higher education institutions: 11 traditional universities, six “comprehensive” universities, which combine academic and vocational courses, and six technological universities. There were also 88 registered private higher education institutions and 27 that were provisionally registered.

The higher education system has been expanding over the past decade. Between 2000 and 2011, enrolment Pupils in the basic education system, 2011 at public institutions grew by an annual average of 4.2%; the figure would have been higher were it not for a shrinkage in student numbers in 2004 and 2005, when several institutions were merged, according to the International Education Association of South Africa (IEASA), a non-profit organisation which promotes the internationalisation of education in the country. While enrolment growth was slow between 2005 and 2009, at 2.3%, between 2010 and 2011 it recovered to 6.2%. By early 2013, the number of students enrolled at public universities was 900,000, according to Mabelebele.

The government aims to increase public-sector enrolment to 1.5m by 2030, meaning that universities will need to expand (and perhaps new institutions open) to accommodate 600,000 new students. This should push the participation rate for 18-to-24-year-olds up to 24% from 16% in 2011. But arguably as big a challenge as expanding capacity will be tackling South Africa’s worryingly high drop-out rate in higher education, which runs at around 45%. The primary reason for drop-outs is financial pressure, according to the IEASA, suggesting that better financing arrangements and subsidies for less affluent students might improve completion rates for higher education. Other factors include domestic pressures (including parenthood) and the difficulties of making the step up from school to university. More support for students, improvements to the school system and better guidance on university course choices could help address these issues.

More ambitiously, in November 2012, Nzimande set a target to enrol 4m students in further education and training (FET) colleges by 2030, up from 420,000 in 2009. The minister has made improving the FET system and enhancing quality a priority to address the perception that they deliver lower-standard education. The state funding for FET colleges rose from R3.8bn ($463m) in 2010 to R4.8bn ($585m) in 2012, while bursaries for the colleges increased more than fivefold, from R318m ($38.76m) in 2010 to R1.75bn ($213m), a sign of the importance that the ministry places on access. Nzimande has asserted that greater funding must be linked to better results and lower drop-out rates, and the overhaul of the FET system is a very long-term project.

R&D spending by sector, 2009/10 BRIDGING THE GAP: Some universities run foundation programmes to bridge the gap between school and higher education, particularly for the sciences, engineering and technology. Higher education institutions are also working with teachers in schools to improve the learning process and encourage a better balance between mastering content and equipping pupils with skills that they will need for further education – and indeed the job market. In 2005, HESA launched the National Benchmark Tests (NBTs) to assess the preparedness of upcoming university students in literacy and mathematics. Mabelebele said that the tests “have been a revelation” and helped universities adopt curricula to meet the needs of new students.

Given the time that it will take to improve schooling across the board, HESA is now lobbying for university courses to be increased from three years to four. The first year would be intended to supplement and develop school learning, while years two to four would see “deep-seated engagement” in courses.

Private Tertiary Education

Liberalisation in the 1990s saw the private tertiary education sector grow, with entrepreneurs setting up a range of institutions, the majority of which focus on vocational qualifications. While government-mandated universities still rule the roost in terms of reputation, the potential for expanding the private sector is abundantly clear from the fact that public universities turn away 80,000 students every year, according to Tyrone Pretorius, the former vice-chancellor and president of Monash South Africa, the local campus of an Australian university – “a huge mismatch” of demand and supply, he said.

Demand for tertiary education is only likely to grow in coming years, particularly with the government’s plans to expand the FET sector and university enrolment. This creates “huge opportunities for private providers”, said Mabelebele. “The university system does not have the capacity to manage huge demand, so there is space for the private sector,” he told OBG. However, he asserts that growing capacity should not lower quality and that the authorities must be wary of institutions that do not deliver to standards.

“South Africa has a highly regulated private education sector,” Pretorius told OBG. “The government wants to assure quality and prevent exploitation. Quality private universities have to be encouraged more to help meet the needs of the country and its students.”


Raising the country’s schools to international standards is an ongoing process. The government is spending on infrastructure and broadening access, continuing its heavy investments in a priority area. But improving the quality of education will also involve difficult reform, as the OECD has highlighted. International organisations, non-governmental organisations and the private sector are all willing to take part in developing schooling in South Africa, from buildings through curricula and assessment to technology. The higher education sector is healthier, and indeed includes some leading universities. The government’s plans for expansion of enrolment over the next decade will be challenging – but could provide opportunities for investors.

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The Report: South Africa 2013

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