Ample resources are invested in South Africa’s education sector, which ranks among the best on the continent. The state spends approximately one-fifth of its budget annually on education and training – R254bn ($24.1bn) was allocated in 2014 – and it has nearly managed to achieve the goal of universal primary school enrolment that has remained so elusive elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, where the regional primary enrolment rate was just 77% in 2012. Some 14% of government expenditure is invested in basic education, according to UNICEF, though quality remains an issue, and low pass rates are especially prevalent in disadvantaged schools.

With 10 globally recognised higher education and research institutions in the country, the tertiary education sector is the best in sub-Saharan Africa, and ranks 33rd in the world in terms of scientific research output. Although university enrolment levels have risen by more than 80% since 1994, “equity of access has not translated into equity of outcomes,” the Council on Higher Education (CHE) concluded in its 2013 document, “Proposal for undergraduate curriculum reform in South Africa”.

Reversing Inequality

In 2007 South Africa implemented a unique system to redistribute education expenditure, with the aim of reversing inequalities stemming from the apartheid era.

The government’s “National norms and standards for school funding” document grouped districts into quintiles according to income, unemployment and education levels. Schools in the lowest-ranking segment were designated no-fee, and received state subsidies six times higher than those in the upper bracket in 2009, according to the Education for All (EFA) “Global Monitoring Report 2013/14”. Since 2011 all schools except those in the top quintile have been eligible for state funding to cover operating costs stemming from lost tuition revenues.

Currently, around 80% of South Africa’s 24,255 schools are no-fee, and collective enrolment totals 11,923,674 students, according to the Department of Basic Education (DBE). The South African Schools Act of 1996 requires children to complete nine years of compulsory education. Primary school runs from grade zero to grade six, and junior secondary school from grades seven to nine.


While most of the region has made negligible progress in increasing enrolment in the past five years, South Africa has nearly achieved the goal of universal primary education. Between 2003 and 2011, the attendance rate for children aged seven to 15 rose from 80% to 98%, according to Statistics South Africa, though it drops to 86% for 17-year-olds and 71% for 19-year-olds.

Since 2003, the government has also channelled more resources into early childhood development, according to the DBE, which has resulted in 750,000 new five-year-olds entering pre-primary programmes. Between 1999 and 2011, the proportion of children enrolled in pre-primary institutions rose from 21% to 65%, and the proportion of those attending private pre-primary schools fell from 26% to 5%. South Africa is currently one of a few countries on the continent that is on track to achieve a pre-primary enrolment target of 70% or more by 2015.


Despite the great strides South Africa has made in expanding access to primary and secondary education, it still recorded one of the 10 highest relative increases in the out-of-school population between 2006 and 2011, when the number rose by 31% from 519,000 to 679,000.

Public officials have deflected criticism by pointing to signs of progress. Between 2000 and 2012, the number of students who passed the nationally administered secondary school exam, the Matric, rose by around 7500 annually, the DBE reported. In 2013, 78% of students who sat for the Matric passed, compared to 74% in 2012 and 61% in 2009. Yet just 31% of the students who earned their senior certificate in 2013 attained the minimum scores required to attend university, a smaller proportion than in 2009, when just over half of those who passed did.

Unemployment figures for the second half of 2013 demonstrate the value of education. The unemployment rate of 15- to 24-year-olds was highest for those without a National Senior Certificate (30%), compared to 27% for high-school graduates or equivalent degree holders, and just 5.2% for university graduates, according to Statistics South Africa.

Despite the ample resources the government has funnelled into historically underserved provinces of the country, a vast achievement gap between wealthy and poor students and an equally large rural-to-urban disparity continues to impact basic education outcomes, most prominently in the areas of science and mathematics. While 60% of students in the country’s two wealthiest provinces, the Western Cape and Gauteng, performed above the minimum learning level in mathematics in the 2007 regional SACMEO assessment exam, only 11% in Limpopo did so, according to the EFA report.

Maths & Science

South Africa was ranked 44th out of 45 countries that participated in the 2011 “Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study” (TIMSS), which gauges global mathematics achievement among eighth-grade students. Though South Africa, Botswana and Honduras were the only countries that gave the test to ninth graders, public officials have focused on the improvement in the national TIMMS score, from 285 when it was first administered in 2002 to 352 in 2011.

The pool of South African students who earned scores above the globally competitive mathematics benchmark of 400 has also grown from just 10.5% of learners in 2002 to 24% in 2011. Though pupils in the Western Cape, Gauteng and Northern Cape still significantly outperformed their counterparts in the three lowest scoring districts of KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and the Eastern Cape, schools in these regions that used to be designated for black children during apartheid saw the biggest gains in TIMMS scores when the test was last administered.

Marginal improvements aside, the World Economic Forum’s “2013 Global ICT” report still ranked the quality of maths and science education in South Africa second to last in a survey of 62 countries, just above Yemen. Inadequate infrastructure and poor resource deployment are part of the problem.

The DBE pledged to deliver an additional 150 schools to underserved provinces by 2015, and has devoted substantial funds to upgrading schools in these provinces over the past two decades. Since 1996, the number of schools without running water has dropped from about 9000 to 1700, and the number without electricity declined from 15,000 to 800, according to the DBE figures. The department also equipped nearly 200 schools with proper sanitation systems in 2012, and a further 448 were due for upgrades in 2013/14. Nonetheless, the department acknowledged that “infrastructure backlogs remain a deep concern in the sector” in its annual report.

Teacher Shortage

The poor performance of students in impoverished, rural districts is also partially attributable to a dearth of qualified maths and science teachers, despite the fact that public school salaries for these subjects are relatively competitive in comparison to other areas.

There are 392,377 educators teaching in South African primary and secondary schools, according to the DBE, and South Africa had 31 pupils for every teacher in 2009. Though this is far better than the regional average of 43 pupils per teacher, South Africa is also facing an acute shortage of teachers.

A report published by the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) in 2011 found that South Africa was falling short of its 2008 target of producing 25,000 new teachers every year by an estimated 15,000 annually, particularly in the aforementioned subjects. In addition, in a test performed on 73 physical science teachers tasked with preparing high school students for the Matric examination in South Africa’s Dinaledi schools, which receive extra government allocations to bolster maths and science education, 40% of them could not complete basic problem-solving questions, the CDE report said.

Despite the huge gap between supply and demand, the CDE found that an inadequate supply of skilled teachers was only part of the problem. Of the 16,581 designated mathematics teachers in the Eastern Cape during the study, only 7090 of them were actually teaching the subject, and 5032 others who were teaching mathematics were not qualified to do so.

Government officials have tended to place much of the blame for the status quo on teachers, pointing to studies such as the one the Human Sciences Research Council conducted for the DBE in 2005, which found that public school teachers spent just 46% of their time giving instruction during the week.

Skills Pipeline

The government has attempted to boost academic capital by increasing funding for scholarships to support students who enrol in university teacher training programmes. The quality of education and student performance levels at South Africa’s 23 universities are very uneven. While some universities are globally competitive, the country’s higher education sector has failed to fully shrug off the legacies of apartheid over the past two decades by creating a pipeline of skilled employees for the labour market. Universities are also facing an imminent shortage of qualified faculty and a growing pool of underprepared new students.

Higher Education

Total university enrolment in South Africa nearly doubled between 1994 and 2011, from 473,000 students to 938,201, according to the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), and there has been substantial progress towards achieving racial equity in university admissions. Black enrolment increased from 52% before apartheid was dismantled to 81% in 2011, while the participation rate of college-age black South Africans has risen from 9% to 14%. Women now comprise 58% of total university enrolment, up from 43% in 1993.

An estimated 18% of college-age South Africans are now enrolled in the country’s 23 universities, which includes both full-time and part-time students participating in contact and distance learning programmes, and the DHET aims to increase the participation rate to 25% by 2030.

Despite these successes, and a rise in the overall graduation rate from 15% in 1994 to 17% in 2010, the current system is characterised by low participation. An estimated 25% of students who attend a university full-time either fail or drop out within the first year, the CHE estimates, and only 27% of students enrolled in bachelor’s degree programmes graduate within the regulation period of three years.

Dropping Out

Approximately 55% of all students who enrol at a tertiary institution never graduate, including an estimated 45% of “contact” students. Just 48% of all university students graduate within five years, and the rate drops to 35% when part-time and distance learning pupils are included.

Part of this failure is certainly due to the historical resource disparities between universities that were formerly designated for whites and blacks under apartheid, but higher education has traditionally received a small share of the government’s total education expenditure.

Higher Education Funding

Though the government’s higher education expenditure has increased in absolute terms from $1.12bn in 2006 to $2.64bn in 2013, spending as a proportion of GDP fell from 0.76% in 2000 to 0.69% in 2009, putting pressure on institutions to raise income through tuition fees or other revenue streams.

State funding will be further squeezed as the targets envisioned in the National Development Plan and the “White Paper on Higher Education and Training” are realised, as the government aims to increase public sector enrolment to 1.5m by 2030.

“We can’t expand the system. We have to make it more efficient,” the CHE’s CEO, Ahmed Essop, told OBG. “Increasing enrolment is not a viable solution to the problems in higher education. Government funding is already insufficient, we have a shortage of academic staff, it takes 10 years to train new candidates and there are not enough qualified people coming through the school system.”

Many stakeholders in the tertiary sector believe that expansion will be a misuse of already-strained government resources. A task team established by the CHE has instead proposed introducing a flexible, four-year degree programme at universities to better cater to students who received inadequate preparation in the primary system.

The task team’s report published in 2013 found that implementing a flexible four-year degree programme would increase the current subsidy cost the government pays for each bachelor’s graduate by 16% and boost the graduation rate by 28%.

In contrast, increasing enrolment in line with national targets at the present graduation rate would increase the current subsidy cost by at least 27%, but as teaching capacity and university resources are likely to deteriorate as intake rises and push graduation rates down, the latter scenario is more likely to result in a 38% rise in subsidy costs.

Beginning in 2014, the number of institutions fighting for a piece of the shrinking higher education pie is projected to grow exponentially. In November 2013, Parliament approved the DHET’s “White Paper For Post-School Education and Training”, which outlines a strategy to expand the 50 ailing technical and vocational colleges and increase enrolment to 1m in 2015 and 2.5m by 2030 (see analysis).


The existing education landscape in South Africa is far more open, equitable and demographically representative than the system that existed two decades ago. Now that black South Africans have been given access to the continent’s best primary and tertiary education system, the government will have to focus on improving outcomes to create a pipeline of skilled youth that meets the needs of the labour market. The challenge will be cultivating the academic and financial capital to meet this goal.