One of the commendable achievements in higher education in post-Apartheid South Africa has been the access and success of undergraduate females. Table 1 shows that the percentage of females enrolled in undergraduate qualifications has increased for the sector from 58% in 2016, to 62% in 2021, an increase of over 100 000 female undergraduate enrolments in 5 years from 2016-2021. The largest increases in female enrolment are seen at Unisa (65% to 71%) and Universities of Technology (50% to 53%).
When looking at success, we see that 62% of graduates in 2016 were female, compared to 65% in 2021, whilst female graduates have increased by 26 500 over 5 years from 2016 - 2021. Although the percentage of female graduates has remained the same for Traditional Universities, the data shows an increase in the percentage of female graduates in Comprehensive Universities, Universities of Technology and Unisa.
Unfortunately, these gains have yet to be translated to higher education staff, where in 2021, only 49% of instructional research staff were female, and only 32% of professors were female.
Table 1: Female percentage enrolled and the Female percentage graduated for undergraduate qualifications from 2016-2021 based on HEMIS data. Unisa is shown separately as they make up about 1/3 of all undergraduate enrolments.
On the other side of the coin, male access and success in higher education in South Africa is a growing concern as shown in Table 2. The percentage of male enrolments has decreased from 42% in 2016 to 38% in 2021, only an increase of less than 15 000 male undergraduate students in 5 years. The percentage of male graduates has decreased from 38% in 2016 to 35% in 2021 and only increased by 7 500 male graduates over 5 years from 2016 to 2021.
Whilst the male graduate trend at Traditional Universities remains the same, we see a worrying trend in the decrease in the percentage of male graduates at Comprehensive Universities, Universities of Technology and Unisa.
Table 2: Male percentage enrolled and the male percentage graduated for undergraduate qualifications from 2016-2021 based on HEMIS data. Unisa is shown separately as they make up about 1/3 of all undergraduate enrolments.
The Saide, Siyaphumelela (“We Succeed”) initiative seeks to broaden evidence-based postsecondary student success strategies across South Africa. Initiated eight years ago, the Siyaphumelela project is now in its second phase and aims to carry forward the work, achievements and learning from the first phase of the initiative and to expand the use of data analytics to improve student experiences and success across the South African higher education sector.
At the meeting of the seven partner universities that comprise the Siyaphumelela Network held in early October 2022, the universities raised concerns about the widening gender gap in academic performance noting the underperformance of African males, in their institutions. It was therefore decided to establish a Siyaphumelela task team to facilitate the use of data analytics to better understand the underperformance of African males in South African higher education institutions. There was a strong call to not approach the research using a student deficit mindset, where African males are seen as a problem that needs to be fixed, but rather to adopt a racial equity approach to black African student success as presented by Dr Shaun Harper from the University of Southern California Race and Equity Center, during his keynote address at the 2021 Siyaphumelela Conference. Growing evidence suggests that the underperformance of males in education is not a uniquely South African problem, and we can draw on international expertise and experience to ensure that, in particular African males, start to mirror the success and access achievements that females have in higher education.
Note: The figures used in Table 1 and Table 2 were summarised from the HEMIS data that is annually provided to the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET). The HEMIS data was accessed on 27/11/2022 from https://www.heda.co.za/PowerHEDA/dashboard.aspx