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01 April 2016

Study choices and employment transitions among Rhodes and Fort Hare university graduates

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)
Press Release

A poor schooling background follows students right through university and graduation and influences their chances of finding employment, especially if they are black and female.

This is one of the conclusions reached in a study by Rhodes University researchers Michael Rogan and John Reynolds. The study formed part of the Labour Market Intelligence Partnership, a research consortium headed by the Human Sciences Research Council and funded by the Department of Higher Education and Training. It was published as a working paper, entitled ‘Schooling inequality, higher education and the labour market: evidence from a graduate tracer study in the Eastern Cape, South Africa’.

The researchers interviewed successful graduates from the two traditional universities in the Eastern Cape, namely Rhodes University (RU) and the University of Fort Hare (UFH). A random sample was compiled from graduates who completed a three- or four-year Bachelor’s degree in 2010 and 2011.  Data from 469 graduates from RU and 742 from the UFH, were gathered trough telephonic interviews and an online survey.

The study sample
The racial composition of graduates from the two universities were very different. Most graduates from Rhodes University (57% of the sample), were white and 35% black African. The vast majority (93%) of graduates in the group from Fort Hare were classified as black and less than 5% were white.

Looking at schooling histories, the researchers found that about half of the Rhodes graduates attended former Model C schools, and 30% attended private schools with very high tuition fees, relatively good infrastructure and low learner-to-teacher ratios. In the case of Fort Hare, 53% attended low-cost public schools associated with lower academic achievements, high learner-to-teacher ratios and relatively poor infrastructure.

Degree preferences and completion
The study preferences (humanities, or science, engineering and technology (SET)) of both groups of graduates, while still at school, were more or less the same. In terms of realising their intentions, about 47% of Rhodes graduates and 41% of Fort Hare graduates went on to complete a degree in their first choice of field of study.

However, the research showed that these figures masked large differences between fields of study. At Rhodes, about 60% of graduates who intended to study a discipline within SET, successfully completed a degree in SET. Among Fort Hare graduates, less than half (48%) of those who intended to obtain a SET degree, did so. Rhodes graduates also were significantly more likely than Fort Hare graduates to complete the degree in which they originally intended to enrol.  Fort Hare graduates who changed their study category between matric and university graduation, switched to humanities.

The main reason provided for changing from the initial intended course of study, also differed between the groups. Among UFH students, 32% indicated that their marks were not good enough to gain entry or to complete their studies. Financial pressures were also a consideration with 7% indicated a perceived lack of jobs in their initial choice of study, or a lack of scholarship opportunities (14%).
The main reason provided by RU graduates for switching their course of study was a loss of interest (48%).

Finding employment
Over and above the differences in study trajectories and degree completion, there are also some important differences in the post-graduation outcomes of UFH and Rhodes graduates. Most notably, there are large differences between the two groups of graduates in terms of their transitions into employment.

A most striking finding of the study was the difference in unemployment rates between the two groups. Figure 1 shows that unemployment rate among Rhodes graduates was 7%, on average, while the unemployment rate among Fort Hare graduates was almost three times higher (20%).

Figure 1: Broad unemployment rates (as of 1 March 2014), by field of study

Also interesting, the study did not provide any evidence that unemployment for humanities graduates were significantly higher than for other fields of study. Education graduates, however, found employment much easier than other UFH graduates (8.8% unemployed), showing relatively easy absorption into the teaching profession relative to other fields.

The vast majority (73%) of RU graduates were employed in the private sector, while 67% of UFH graduates found employment in the government sector.

An important difference between employed graduates from the two universities was their job search strategies. The single most common means of finding their current job among RU graduates was through personal contacts or social and other networks (30%). Fort Hare graduates relied to a great extent (36%) on newspaper advertisements.

The risk of unemployment is significantly higher for black graduates, and in particular, for black women, says Dr Michael Rogan, first author of the paper. ‘The disappointing conclusion… is that race and gender, and not achievements, appear to be consistent predicators of success in the labour market’.

Another significant link with unemployment is low income schooling, says Rogan.

‘In other words, being female and coming from a low-income school carries an extra risk of unemployment.’ 

‘Rather than addressing study choices alone to reduce graduate unemployment, policy should focus on improving the match between graduates and the labour market’, Rogan maintains.

‘The authors recommend that besides interventions in poorly resourced schools, policy should focus more closely on creating links between universities and employment through, inter alia, enhanced career guidance, work placement programmes and linked bursaries.’


Note to editors: for further information or interviews, please contact
Dr Mike Rogen, Senior Researcher, Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit (NALSU), Institute of Social and Economic Research Rhodes University:
Tel: 046 603 7607
Cell phone: 084 455 6274