Graduating: It's not a guarantee

While education plays a crucial role in improving employment prospects, in the first quarter of 2019, labour-force statistics showed that 31% of graduates up to the age of 24 were unemployed. At a recent HSRC seminar on unemployment and skills development Dr Michael Rogan, from the Neal Aggett Labour Studies Unit at Rhodes University and editor of Post-school education and the labour market in South Africa, spoke about graduates’ transitions into the workplace.

Graduate unemployment rates vary between historically disadvantaged and well-resourced institutions. Photo: Reynaldo Rivera/Unnsplash

Linking data from the Department of Higher Education, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) and the South African Revenue Service helped researchers to identify which university graduates were in formal employment. They found that graduate employment rates varied greatly between historically disadvantaged (from 57%) and well-resourced institutions (up to 92%).

Rhodes vs Fort Hare – the importance of networking

As part of the HSRC’s Labour Market Intelligence Project, researchers looked at the employment take-up of graduates from of the Rhodes and Fort Hare universities in the Eastern Cape. The data showed a 20% unemployment rate for Fort Hare graduates compared to 6.8% of Rhodes graduates.

How graduates found employment differed, researchers found.

“Nearly half of the Rhodes graduates found their current employment through some type of social network like personal contacts, social media, and relatives,” said Rogan. “Of the Fort Hare graduates, fewer than 20% found their current employment through such channels. Only 11% found jobs through personal contacts, as opposed to almost 30% of the Rhodes graduates. More than 36% of employed Fort Hare graduates found their work through responding to newspaper adverts, a very formal and somewhat dated method.”

What explains this?

One theory in the literature is that there is a signalling effect between employers and universities. When for years you have strong industry connections with places like UCT, Rhodes, Wits and the University of Pretoria, it takes a long time for that signalling effect about the quality of the university to change.

“We also found that the vast majority of graduates that were employed from Fort Hare ended up in the public sector. And that was the flip situation at Rhodes where the vast majority ended up in the private sector. It speaks to different types of social networks,” said Rogan.

The researchers also explored the effect of unequal schooling backgrounds. Learners from the poorest schools (quintiles one to four) had a higher risk of being in a non-graduate job or in a job that is not commensurate with their education and training, even after controlling for several risk factors.

“A lot of this comes from inequalities in basic education. These inequalities persist in terms of race and schooling quality and are projected through the post-school education system and into the labour markets.”

According to Rogan, there is an urgent need to improve the quality of data and research to keep track of the outcomes of investments in post-school education and training.