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9 JANUARY 2017



For matriculants, the focus now turns to the future, and prospects for work and study.

One of the most dangerous side-effects of the narrow national preoccupation with matric is the way in which it is painted as a guaranteed gateway to success. In fact, while there are real benefits to completing matric, the Class of 2016 will face a divided and unequal employment and education environment, where their post-school opportunities will be heavily shaped by the quality of their pass and access to funding. With a largely dysfunctional Technical Vocational and Education Training (TVET) college system, and a university sector that caters to the elite, it is slim pickings. Both quality of pass and access to funding are strongly linked to a matriculant’s race, class, school attended, gender and geographic location.


Education performance in South Africa remains strongly aligned with socio-economic status. The education system continues to reward those who have had a solid pre-school and foundation phase teaching, and fails those who due to poverty had an inadequate primary schooling.

Of the 134 409 learners from quintile 1 schools who wrote the final matric exams, 83 954 achieved Bachelor passes. In contrast, 96 600 quintile 5 learners wrote, but produced 88 967 Bachelor passes.

The same trend can be observed in the 2015 results, where 139 127 quintile 1 learners wrote the matric exams, and produced 85 663 Bachelor passes. In contrast, 100 582 quintile 5 learners resulted in 91 290 Bachelor passes. In both 2016 and 2015, the Bachelor pass contributions of the quintile 1 and quintile 5 schools were inversely proportional to the number of learners writing the exams.


Many of these young people move into unemployment when they leave the basic education system. Using a broad definition of unemployment, youth unemployment (here defined as between ages 15 and 34) in the third quarter of 2016 was 48,6%. This is spread unevenly across different ages: the unemployment rate for people of ages 15-24 (not counting those in education) was a shockingly high 65,5%.[1]

Young women are more vulnerable to unemployment than young men, and youth in rural provinces with fewer economic opportunities are also more likely to be unemployed. Unsurprisingly, race is still an important factor for employment: based on 2015 figures, just over 40% of black youth were unemployed, compared to only 11% of white youth.[2]

Adding to the crisis of youth unemployment is a failed policy known as the Youth Wage Subsidy or Employment Tax Incentive. At a time when the State needed to be bold in tackling the challenge of youth unemployment, this scheme transferred R5 billion to the private sector and we have yet to see any tangible results.  This scheme, as backed by the DA and implemented by the ANC  government, should never have seen the light of day. Treasury could never convince us that this scheme has had any impact in tackling the demon that is youth unemployment. Here are two of the many ways in which we would have put R5 billion to use to create employment:

  • Unemployed youth could have been employed as sports coaches in our schools, particularly poor schools.
  • Employing youths as as administrators in Magistrate’s and Higher Courts to help in curbing the filling backlog which results in justice being delayed.


The matric certificate is still valuable in the labour market, despite negative perception. While the labour market conditions faced by school leavers have deteriorated over time, the value of a matric certificate relative to that of a Grade 10 and a Grade 11 has remained positive both in terms of earnings and the likelihood of finding employment[3]. The value of a Matric certificate for many Black families remains a huge achievement and this is why this milestone is part of a large transformative and redistributive agenda in this country, particularly for Black people who were historically denied an opportunity to further their studies or complete their grade 12.

This is supported by data from the 2011 National Census, which shows that the unemployment rate for 25 to 35 year olds who had “less than matric” was 47% in 2011, compared to 33% for 25 to 35 year olds that had a matric and 20% for people of the same age group with a diploma or post-school certificate (see chart below)[4].


While achieving a matric qualification gives a person significant benefits as compared to not achieving one, the Class of 2016 will encounter variable levels of opportunity. They will have to compete with older, more experienced workers, and navigate a job market which increasingly seeks out highly skilled workers.

A tertiary qualification of some sort makes more secure employment prospects and greater earning potential much more likely. While 20% of youth with a diploma or certificate were unemployed in 2011, only 8% of youth who had completed an undergraduate degree were unemployed at that time. This is despite a massive increase in supply: the number of degree holders in the labour market more than doubled between 1995 and 2011, from 463 000 to 1,1 million.[5] In 2011, a young person with a college qualification could expect to earn 60% more than they would have with just a matric to their name. Young people with degrees earned, on average, 150% more than matriculants.[6]

However, most young people do not study further:

For 20 – 24-year-olds, 16% remain in school, 12% are in post-schooling education, 21% in employment, and 51% are not in employment, education or training (NEET).[7]

In fact, NEETs make up fully a third of all youth: over 3 million people.[8] The number of youths not in employment, education or training is a looming disaster. These young people are unable to improve their chances of employment by growing their skills. The growth of NEETs represents the transmission of Apartheid’s legacy of cheap labour to a new generation. These young people must find ways to survive in an economy which is increasingly characterised by short-term, unstable employment, with new technology which cuts jobs, and competing against low-wage countries without trade protections and subsidies.

A 2007 analysis of NEETs found that 71% of the group was made up of youth who had not completed matric.[9] The second largest group of NEETs were young men and women who completed matric without ‘exemption’, which meant that they did not pass well enough to access tertiary education. This group made up a much smaller, but still significant 21% (or 600 000) of the total number of NEETs. These figures once again highlight the value of a matric certificate, in that one is far more likely to fall into this category without a matric certificate. But it is also clear that not all reap the benefits of matric to the same extent.

From this discussion, a number of conclusions can be drawn:

  • Inequality does not end with the acquisition of a matric certificate. Rather, opportunities are sharply divided for school-leavers. Inequalities play out in tertiary education, and who is able to access this.
  • There are very poor links between school and post-school, particularly for lower achievers, and many fall between the cracks. Few institutional avenues exist for young people who do not qualify for tertiary education, or to bridge the gap between high school and tertiary education.

A matric certificate has currency, and is a tool for redress. This is why we are  increasingly concerned with the basic education dropout rate, and primary schooling crisis in impoverished communities.


Pending the quality of their passes, matrics will be able to access Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges, and/or universities. As at 2014, there were 1 037 088 students in universities, and 781 378 in TVET colleges.[10] Youth may also benefit from on-the-job training programmes through Sectoral Education and Training Authorities (SETAs) and learnerships.

Enrolments for TVET colleges have nearly doubled since 2010, and the Department of Higher Education and Training plans to expand them even further, to eventually outstrip universities. This is positive, as TVET colleges are more accessible to learners, in terms of lower entrance requirements and lower fees.[11] They also provide skills which are needed in the economy.

However, while there are a few highly functional TVET colleges, the sector as a whole does not perform well. Completion rates are low – partly because many of the courses are challenging, and teaching can be poor. Pass rates for the National Certificate Vocational (a qualification which involves a mixture of theory and practice) average 42%.[12] As a result of the poor quality and neglect of some colleges, the public and the market hold negative perceptions of TVETs – those who have a choice tend to prefer university, and unemployment rates for youth with TVET college qualifications were more than double that of youth with Bachelor’s degrees (although still much lower than unemployment rates with just a matric).[13]

Higher education would be totally inaccessible to most without funding assistance. For much of 2016, the #FeesMustFall protests dominated the public discourse on education, and rightly placed the spotlight on university fees as a barrier to university access for the poor. However, the 2016 matric results are an opportunity to highlight the way in which the quality of basic education and the failure of the system to retain learners mean many young people never even meet the academic standard to attend university, or to succeed in higher education.

By the Department of Basic Education’s own admission most learners are not prepared for university studies by the time they leave the basic education system.[14]

“It’s unusual for a developing country to push so many learners through to 12 years of schooling, yet have so many that are not ready for university studies,” Martin Gustafsson, advisor to the Department of Basic Education told the The Commission of Inquiry into Higher Education and Training (“the Fees Commission”) earlier this year. Of the 60% of youth who complete 12 years of schooling, only 20% are ready for university, Gustafsson said. “One would want that 20% figure to be 30% or 40%, then we’d be in a much healthier and normal type of situation.”


No. of Diploma Passes Diploma Passes as % of total candidates No. of Bachelor Passes Bachelor Passes as % of total candidates
2016 179 619 29,4 162 574 26,6
2015 183 720 28,5 166 263 25,8



In 2016, 56% of matriculants who wrote the exams, qualified for some form of tertiary education. Both diploma and Bachelor passes have increased by between 0,8 and 0,9 percentage points from 2015. In real terms, however, each category had close to 4,000 less passes.

 Quintile 5 schools supplied more than double the number of Bachelor passes than quintile 1 schools, despite having fewer learners registered.

It is crucial to bear in mind that between 40% to 50% of learners never write the matric exam. This year the attrition rate was 44,57%. This means that of the the 1 054 582 learners who were in Grade 2 in 2006, 32,4% qualified for tertiary education and a mere 15,4% qualified for university studies.[15]

But not all learners who obtain a Bachelor pass – and therefore qualify for university studies – necessarily enter university.  A recently published study by the University of Stellenbosch[16] tracked university access and throughput for the 2008 matric cohort. The data revealed that for the entire 2008 matric cohort the six-year access rate (i.e. learners who access university within six years after completing matric) was 20%. Amongst those who achieved matric Bachelor passes, the rate was 68.5%. Therefore, just under a third of learners who qualified to attend university, didn’t.

The study found that patterns of university access and university success are strongly influenced by school outcomes: “The weak school system has a major influence on who reaches matric, and how they perform in matric. This, and particularly the achievement of Bachelor passes, explains much of the differences in university outcomes by race, gender and province. “

In addition, the study found strong evidence that “access to university amongst the black population is largely constrained by poor school results amongst many black matriculants, rather than other barriers to access.”[17] These poor results stem from  the stubborn apartheid legacy of highly unequal education opportunities for black learners, especially those from poor socio-economic backgrounds.

The issue is therefore that black learners and learners from poor socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to obtain matric Bachelor passes. When they do obtain it, their chances of attending a tertiary institution are not significantly less than other learners. That said, those who achieve Bachelor passes from quintile 1 to 3 schools are far more likely to study at a TVET college or toward a diploma programme than a matriculant with a Bachelor pass from a quintile 5 school.

It must also be noted that even among matrics who qualify to access post-school education, accumulated learning deficits prove to be obstacles to their success. Nearly 30% of those who entered university had dropped out within five years.[18] As noted earlier, in vocational courses which blend theory and practical experience – the National Certificate Vocational (NCV) – average pass rates are 42%. If drop-outs have taken student loans, they are left with debt and little ability to repay it.

While not underestimating the impact of university fees on students’ ability to complete university education, it is clear that basic education has a major impact on learners’ ability to get accepted into university in the first place, as well as on their ability to succeed there.

Real change needs to take place in the early phases of learners’ education if the country is to ever to properly address challenges in the higher education sector.


We are pleased for the increased number of learners who attained a matric certificate, and for the “progressed learners” (27% of the 67 510 who wrote all seven subjects in November 2016) who passed the final exams.

However, a rise or fall in the national matric pass rate remains a poor indicator of the overall quality of the education system, and conceals various inequalities. The matric pass rate must not be viewed as the sole criterion for judging the efficacy of the schooling system, or as the sole measure of gains in academic achievement in the country, in a province, or in a school.

For one, the pass rate captures only the percentage of learners who have written the National Senior Certificate (NSC) exam, but fails to account for learners who never make it to matric.

Table 1: Dropout rate


Matric Year Enrolment in Grade 2 of cohort class Enrolment in Grade 10 of cohort class Grade 12 cohort that wrote matric % Dropout since Grade 10
2016 1 054 582 1,100,877


610,178 44,57%
2015 1 094 373   1,146,285 644,536 43,77%
2014 1,085,570   1,103,495 532,860 51,71%
2013 1 087 933   1,094,189 562,112 48,63%
2012 992,571   1,039,762 511,152 50,84%
2011   925 761   1,017,341   496,090 51,24%
2010 1,090,765   1,076,527   537,543 50,07%


Table 2: Cohort pass rate


Year No. of learners that wrote matric No. of learners that passed % that passed matric 10 yrs earlier Grade 2 learners (2000 – 2006) Cohort matric pass rate (%)
2016 610,178 442,672 72,5 1 054 582 42
2015 644,536 455,825 70,7 1 094 373 41,65
2014 532,860 403,874 75,8 1,085,570 37.2
2013 562,112 439,779 78,2 1 087 933 40.4
2012 511,152 377,829 73,9 992,571 38
2011 496,090 348,117 70,2 925,761 37.6
2010 537,543 364,147 67,8 1,090,765 33.4


The root of matric underperformance lies in poor quality early childhood development and foundation phase education. Learners who cannot read fluently by the end of Grade 4 cannot engage with the rest of the curriculum in meaningful ways. This is primarily because in grades 1 to 3 the curriculum focuses on learning to read, and from Grade 4 there is a shift to reading to learn. For most learners, passing matric well and potentially obtaining a university degree is already largely unattainable by the time those learners reach the end of Grade 3[19].


Mathematics and physical science are understood to be ‘gateway subjects’ as they open up a greater variety of post-school opportunities. They are crucial for economic development, and are sought after by employers.

That 33,511 learners earned 60% or more for mathematics in the 2016 examinations, (compared to 30,314 in 2014, and 31,812 in 2015), is encouraging. Compared to 2015, there were 1,308 additional black African learners achieving at this level. This accounts for much of the overall growth of mathematics marks of 60% and above, and should be celebrated as a sign of some progress.[20]

However, this increase in the number of 60% passes does not necessarily mean that these subjects are undergoing “large improvements”, as Minister Motshekga said during the announcements of the results. Focusing on the absolute numbers of learners passing mathematics or science can be skewed by a large matric cohort. Considering the percentage pass rate tells us more about the performance of the system. In fact, a look at the pass rates at the 30% and the 40% levels reveal a steady decline between 2013 and 2015. Despite a slight recovery in 2016, pass rates remain below 2013 levels.

The below tables show the numbers of learners who wrote the mathematics and physical science papers:


Year No. that wrote the NSC paper No. that achieved 30% or above % that achieved 30% or above No. that achieved 40% or above % that achieved 40% or above
2016 265,810 135,958 51.1 89,084 33.5
2015 263,903 129,481 49.1 84,297 31.9
2014 225,458 120,523 54 79,050 35
2013 241,509 142,666 59 97,790 41


Physical science:

Year No. that wrote the NSC paper No. that achieved 30% or above % that achieved 30% or above No. that achieved 40% or above % that achieved 40% or above
2016 192,618 119,427 62 76,044 39.5
2015 193,189 113,121 58.6 69,699 36.1
2014 162,977 103,348 62 62,032 37
2013 184,383 124,206 67 78,677 43


The 2016 mathematics and physical science results halt a three year decline in passing percentages. This is positive. However, the percentages of learners who passed at both 30% and 40% are still unacceptably low. Improvement can only be sustained with a sober approach to the failings in these subjects.


Equal Education congratulates the Class of 2016, and all learners, parents, teachers, and school administrators who devoted much effort to achieving the pass rate of 72,5%. Particular mention must be made of those who learn and work in conditions of unsafe and inadequate school infrastructure.

We are gravely concerned at the performance of the rural provinces. Rural provinces such as the Eastern Cape (EC), KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) and Limpopo (LP) have the most under-resourced (human and material) and poorest schools, and consistently record pass rates well below the national average.

Education authorities cannot in good conscience allow the neglect of the rural provinces – and the Eastern Cape in particular to persist. Learners, parents, education stakeholder formations and the broader public should not stand for it. The circumstances under which teaching and learning are expected to occur are unbearable.

This country cannot afford to condemn anymore young people to learning under inhumane conditions,  and to the cycle of poverty. Should this persist South Africa risk the possibility of an uprising of young people, fed up at having the wealth of politicians and business people flaunted in their faces.

For every year that we celebrate a high matric pass rate, there is an increase in the number of youths (majority black) who join the long que of unemployment and poverty. Politicians and the private sector ought to take heed of this imminent disaster.

Every Generation has its Struggle #FixOurschools

 For further comment:

Tshepo Motsepe (General Secretary of EE)

Daniel Sher (EE Deputy Head of Policy and Training)

[1] Statistics South Africa, Quarterly Labour Force Survey, Quarter 3 2016. 22 November 2016.

[2] Graham, L. and Mlatsheni, C. “Youth unemployment in South Africa: Understanding the challenge and working on solutions”, in South African Child Gauge 2015, edited by De Lannoy A, Swartz
S, Lake L & Smith C, 34-41. Cape Town: Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town, 2015.

[3] Hofmeyr, C., Branson, N., & Leibbrandt, M. (2013).  The matric certificate is still valuable in the labour market. SALDRU, University of Cape Town.


[4] Spaull, S. (2014).

[5] CDE (Centre for Development and Enterprise) 2013. “Graduate unemployment in South Africa: A much exaggerated problem”. CDE Insight. April 2013.

[6] Branson, N., Hofmeyr, C., Papier, J., and Needham, S. “Post-school education: Broadening alternative pathways from school to work”, in South African Child Gauge 2015, edited by De Lannoy A, Swartz S, Lake L & Smith C, 41-50.
Cape Town: Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town, 2015.

[7] Branson, et al. “Post-school education: Broadening alternative pathways from school to work”.

[8] Cloete, N., Sheppard, C., and Van Schalkwyk, F. “University Fees in South Africa: A story from evidence”, Centre for Higher Education Transformation. Commission of Inquiry into Higher Education Pretoria, 11 August 2016.

[9] Cloete, N. (ed.). “Responding to the educational needs of post-school youth”, Centre for Higher Education Transformation, 2009

[10] Cloete, et al. “University Fees in South Africa: A story from evidence”.

[11] Branson, et al. “Post-school education: Broadening alternative pathways from school to work”.

[12] Branson, et al. “Post-school education: Broadening alternative pathways from school to work”.

[13] Spaull, N. (2014).

[14] Barry Bateman. (2016, September 23). Fees Commission hears that many matriculants not ready for university. Eyewitness News. Retrieved from

[15] As mentioned in our pre-results statement, learners who repeat grades or go into the TVET sector influence calculations based on grade 2 enrolments. Nonetheless, it still gives us a more accurate picture than comparing these figures to the number of learners who wrote matric in a particular year.

[16] Van Broekhuizen, H., Van der Berg, S., & Hofmeyr, H. (2016). “Higher Education Access and Outcomes for the 2008 National Matric Cohort”. Stellenbosch Economic Working Papers: 16/16.

[17] Ibid. p. iv

[18] Van Broekhuizen, et al. “Higher Education Access and Outcomes for the 2008 National Matric Cohort”.

[19] Van der Berg, S. (2015). “What the Annual National Assessments can tell us about learning deficits over the education system and the school career year”. Stellenbosch Economic Working Papers: 18/15. Department of Economics University of Stellenbosch.

[20] Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga’s 2016 matric results speech