Are universities equipping graduates for the real world?

4 November 2021 by Fenella Somerville

For many young South Africans, a tertiary qualification is perceived to be the passport to a good job and decent salary. As such, there is the expectation that higher education will open the way to a better life for graduates as well as their families. Yet, increasingly we find graduates who are jobless, or underemployed, taking on unskilled work merely to earn some kind of income.

South Africa has an unemployment crisis. The most recent Quarterly Labour Force Survey from Statistics South Africa (released 24 August 2021) records the national unemployment rate at a new record-high level of 34.4%. Granted that of the 7.8 million unemployed people in the country, the majority (±90%) do not have a university degree. But amongst other factors, the Covid-19 pandemic has decimated the labour market and the StatsSA report reveals that since June this year, 54 000 people who were employed no longer have jobs. Reality is bleak for the increasing number of graduates leaving university, who face a labour market with fewer available jobs, and diminishing options within formal employment.

Research on media graduate employability

Between 2018 and 2020 I conducted research to understand the employability of media graduates from private higher education institutions. There are currently 130 registered private higher education providers in South Africa. These institutions enrol approximately 210,000 students, and produced more than 42,000 graduates in 2019.

In South Africa, the term “university” is reserved for public higher education institutions according to the Higher Education Act. Consequently, private higher education may be perceived as not on par with university education. But all private institutions must be registered with the Department of Higher Education and Training and need to comply with the same programme accreditation and quality assurance requirements as public universities. There is also no difference between the sectors as far as qualification levels are concerned, with all qualifications having to be registered on the National Qualifications Framework (NQF).

Nevertheless, the private higher education sector is distinct from the public sector in that it receives no funding or financial support from the state. Institutions are privately owned and governed, generally smaller than universities when it comes to student enrolment, and the programmes they offer take a strongly vocational orientation, focused on preparing graduates for the workplace.

The research focused on graduates from three different private institutions – ranging from elite to low-fee – who studied to work in journalism, public relations, graphic design, creative and visual communication, including radio and television production and broadcasting. These are fields in which digital technologies are creating significant changes to the type of jobs and nature of work. Participants had been in the workplace for between one and five years.

The data showed that the percentage of graduates who found employment was relatively high. However, the employment outcomes varied between graduates, strongly shaped by personal biographies as well as enrolment choices and options, and mediated by type of institution. These findings may be of use to higher education managers, educators, researchers and policymakers. Attention needs to be given not only to the knowledge and skills graduates require for employment but also the other factors that give graduates a better chance of earning a decent livelihood and participating in society.

Meeting the needs of employers

Factors that counted toward employability include the reputation of the institution; networks and connections; experience; and type of work. Yet, these are no guarantee of a job.

A qualification does not equate to a job. Within five years of graduating, 84% of the graduates were working. Yet some, mostly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, remained unemployed, with diminishing opportunities for jobs over time.

Having a job does not equate to earning a decent livelihood. Many graduates were underemployed. They had taken jobs for which they are overqualified and/or which are unrelated to their field of qualification, including jobs in factories, retail, and administration, merely to earn some income.

One-third of the employed graduates earned less than R10,000 a month, and 11% of those earned below R5,000 a month. That is not far off the minimum wage. There was a pattern: most of the low-wage earners were black graduates from low-fee institutions.

Experience is essential, and graduates face a conundrum. They need experience to get a job but cannot get a job to build the experience they need. Some employers offer internships as a portal to the workplace. Eighty percent of the study participants had worked in some form of internship to build a base of experience. But the stipend received by interns ranged from R2,000 to R4,000 a month, which barely covered transport costs. This means that contrary to expectations that graduates will leave university and become independent earners, they continue to require financial support from their families during an internship. Those from poor families are less likely to be able to afford to participate in these employment-enhancing opportunities and hence their disadvantage persists.

An institution’s reputation counts. Employers partner with higher education institutions. They contribute industry-relevant input to the curriculum and teaching, and then recruit interns directly from that institution’s pool of graduates. Employers admitted that they favour particular institutions, while graduates from other institutions are overlooked, irrespective of their training, qualification or competence.

Meeting the needs of all graduates

Deeper analysis of graduates’ employment status showed patterns of employment were divided along lines of race, socioeconomic status, educational background and institution. These findings are similar to those of studies on the employability of graduates from public universities. They call into question the value of investing in higher education, and whether institutions provide equitable opportunities for all graduates.

The findings confirm that skills, knowledge and a qualification do not ensure successful employment outcomes for graduates. Higher education cannot overcome structural constraints such as a saturated labour market, weak economy and entrenched social inequality. More of the same from institutions, irrespective of the quality of the education, will likely continue to reproduce unequal outcomes. The need for higher education institutions in South Africa to take note of this reality is even more important in the context of Covid-19 and the aftermath of the civil unrest in July, considering the implications of these macro issues on graduates’ livelihoods and lives.

Policies should recognise that some individuals require different strategies, resources and ways of teaching to achieve the same outcomes as others. Students need to be guided and supported in their choices from the outset, learning how to build networks, gaining real work experience, and preparing for various types of work in a range of contexts.

Universities need to prepare graduates for options beyond formal employment. Institutions ought to focus on enhancing graduates’ abilities to navigate their way in society, to be responsive to opportunities to work and earn, and to be adaptable so they can thrive in an uncertain world.

Source: IOL at