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Myths and Realities of Higher Education

By Jason Musyoka

From a young age, most learners are exposed to the ‘access debate’ in daily engagements with peers, parents and even educators. One of the crushing moments of any learner’s life are the words ‘we won’t be able to afford to take you through college/university’ from guardians. When our access to higher education is in doubt due to affordability or other reasons, there is always an overwhelming sense of despair and betrayal by the government, by our parents, and even by God; depending on who we hold most accountable for our sense of purpose in life.

Like in most other sectors, debates on higher education in South Africa have tended to grapple with the access question as the mainstay. National reports on the performance of higher education are therefore inundated with concepts and data on attainment, enrolment and coverage. While these concepts are useful in certain respects, they obscure the complex correlation between higher education and economic opportunities.

The gravity of access to higher education weighs on the often-unexamined promise of society that education will almost automatically lead us to economic opportunities, perhaps in a mystical way. But if we abandon the naivety of a mystical correlation between education and economic opportunities, the picture becomes more multifaceted. With focus on South Africa, consider the following, for example.

By 2014, about two thirds (70%) of learners (over 8 million) in 20,000 public schools were benefiting from the government’s no fee policy. In terms of the proportion of 16-year olds attending secondary school, at 80%, South Africa ranks well above similar emerging economies such as Turkey (60%), Indonesia (60%), Nigeria (61%) and Egypt (78%). Moreover, according to data compiled by the World Bank, in 2018, tertiary education enrolment in South Africa was at 22%, having more than doubled since 1994.

While South Africa’s progress on access to higher education is commendable over the past two decades, the country lags behind all the BRICS countries [Brazil, 51%; Russia, 82%; India, 28%; China, 51%] and behind the global average (38%). The question of access is of course at the core of these figures.

Simplistic conclusions tethered on the ‘access’ debate are founded on at least two myths. The first has to do with the argument that lack of higher education is a coup de grace against economic opportunities for an individual. Secondly, it is argued that with higher education, one will robotically arrive at the promised land of economic opportunity. None of these conclusions hold merit if closely examined.

Let us look at the first myth. Let’s use entrepreneurship as a proxy for economic activity. If lack of higher education automatically leads to less economic activity, then the performance of countries such as India would not make any sense. With tertiary education enrolment rate of 28%, India ranks close to South Africa (22%). But while both countries demonstrate low level of tertiary education access, India ranks among the most entrepreneurial countries in the world second only to Chile. Indian entrepreneurs clearly exist despite low tertiary education enrolment rate.

On the second myth, if high enrolment rate of tertiary education automatically translates to economic opportunities, then the Japanese case makes no sense. Japan, whose tertiary education enrolment rate was 63.4 % in 2014 (three times that of South Africa), has one of the world’s least entrepreneurial rates. I do not by any means suggest that higher education does not correlate positively with entrepreneurship. The point being made in demystifying the two misconceptions is that higher education is not a totalitarian insurance against lack of opportunities, neither is lack of higher education a totalitarian deterrent to economic activities.

All the above point to something beyond formal education, for an individual to be economically productive. In the case of South Africa (and Africa at large) for the most part, students express deep frustration when they fail to access economic opportunities. This is understandable given the sacrifices made through higher education period, which could take a between three and ten years.  

The challenge which graduates in South Africa will have to grapple with in the foreseeable future turn on the occupational choice between production and consumption. Graduates who commit their future to employment income will have to deal with the whims of transition to the labor market. Almost always they are forced to confront the following:

  • Low wages for start-ups
  • Work place politics,
  • Face inflexible organizational structures which minimise creativity and  
  • Work in geographical areas which they might not necessarily like

Most graduates prefer to make the above sacrifices for income security. The above experiences are not necessarily negative, however. They form part of life skills. Also, most entrepreneurs go through a process of employment, which then prepares them for the brutal market currents, which resist entrepreneurs.

Graduates who set out to become entrepreneurs typically start off from the same platform as those who settle for long term employment. The pathway is however different. The traditional trail of entrepreneurship involves two transitions. The first is the transition from the academy to active labor, the second (at least for most entrepreneurs) is the transition from employment to entrepreneurship.

Both transitions are bumpy, uneven and sometimes prolonged. In the long run however, entrepreneurs end up producing more than they consume, they multiply their incomes faster even in the face of uncertainties, and they almost always choose areas of entrepreneurship which they are passionate about and therefore more fulfilling. 

The need to develop critical thinking among graduates should always remain the guiding principle of the academy. But critical thinking is a means to an end. It should translate to self-actualisation through courageous innovations and entrepreneurship. The scramble for employment in South Africa (and Africa) takes place in already overcrowded space.

The less crowded entrepreneurial space is more ruthless but a suitable goal for graduates who wish to implement their acquired knowledge for economic production, which returns more rewards to the daring graduate, and the economy as a whole. Perhaps the turn to entrepreneurship will solve poverty and inequality in South Africa (and around the continent) in a more sustainable and permanent way, but only for individuals and economies which summon the courage to make such uneven, prolonged turn.     

Dr Jason Musyoka is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of The  Frontline Group. He is also an associate researcher at the Department of Political Science, University of Pretoria. Email: