A study of graduate unemployment by the four Western Cape universities has found that while a very high proportion of all graduates are employed, being white remains the strongest indicator of whether a person will find work, especially in the private sector.
Graduate unemployment has been portrayed in various earlier studies as a chronic problem, suggesting that the higher education system is out of kilter with the needs of the labour market. The study shows this is not the case, but also illustrates that other factors — such as race, the institution attended and home background — are strong predictors of whether a person will find employment.
The study was undertaken by the Council for Higher Education on behalf of the University of Cape Town, Stellenbosch University, University of the Western Cape and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.
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It traced the employment status of the entire graduating cohort of 2010 in one of the most thorough investigations into the pathway between university and work.
Council for Higher Education CE Nasima Badsha said the survey came about because much discussion on the issue on graduate unemployment was based on anecdotal evidence.
"We wanted to get a systematic view of whether our graduates were finding work and whether the employment they secured was related to what they had studied," Ms Badsha said.
The survey found that a very high percentage of graduates — 84% — were employed, exploding the myth of large-scale graduate unemployment.
However, behind the overall percentages "lie some extremely disturbing patterns," said the council, "which perpetuate the historical inequalities of the graduate labour market."
These include that unemployment was highest — at 19% — for African graduates and also highest for those who came from largely rural provinces, such as Limpopo (19%), the Eastern Cape (15%) and Mpumalanga (15%) or from township (19%) or village schools (14%). Graduates who did poorly in matric maths with symbols of between E and H, were also more likely to be unemployed.
Most likely to be employed were whites and Indians, where the unemployment rate was 5% and 3%.
Whites were more likely to have found work in the private sector and were far more effective in tapping into social networks to find employment. African graduates, on the other hand, were most likely to find their first job in the public sector.
There was also a large difference in employment chances according to the institution, with around 5% of graduates of the universities of Cape Town and Stellenbosch unemployed.
Thirteen percent of graduates from University of the Western Cape were unemployed and 16% of graduates from Cape Peninsula University of Technology, where the focus is on vocational education.
Ms Badsha said that the council needed to do "a lot more qualitative work and engage more with employers" to understand why white graduates from traditionally white universities appeared to have such an advantage in the labour market.
"I suspect that there are a combination of factors at play. One is that employers are using traditional networks for filling jobs.
"To some degree employers are not informed about the universities they have not historically dealt with. They might not be aware of how far these institutions have come in recent years."
Most graduates were employed as professionals although a sizeable proportion of business and commerce graduates (26.2%) and humanities graduates (14.5%) were working in low-skill, clerical jobs.
The rate of self-employment was 2% of the cohort, which although low was comparable with international trends, the study said.
Younger graduates found it more difficult to find work than older ones, underlining South Africa’s more general problem of the difficulties that the youth have in breaking into the jobs market.
The study also showed that almost half of the foreign students who studied at one of the four institutions had remained in South Africa after graduating.