Project wrap-up: The consequences of the COVID-19 crisis for inequalities in higher education in South Africa

Image: Anastasiia Chepinska on Unsplash.

At the end of July, SALDRU’s Siyaphambili Post-School Research Group closed off a three-year project on The COVID-19 health crisis and inequalities in tertiary education in South Africa. The project was funded by the Spencer foundation, a leading United States-based funder of education research. The project was one of twenty successful proposals and stands out as the only one funded outside of North America. This article presents an overview of the project’s objectives and key findings.


Project purpose

In South Africa, completing a higher education qualification improves job prospects and increases earnings; providing the potential to vastly improve students’ future socioeconomic circumstances. However, stark disparities in access and completion exist, which are strongly linked to broader social inequalities. Moreover, institutions differ in their levels of (historic) (dis)advantage,[1] catering to student populations that differ considerably across institutions.

COVID-19 saw system-wide closures of institutions, prompting concerns that existing household and institutional inequalities could deepen during this period. Empirical evidence on changes in student performance and retention during 2020 and 2021 can offer valuable insights to guide institutions and governments in their strategies for addressing the consequences of COVID-19; consequences that will persist over the next few years.


Key insights

Using system-wide institutional data we show that undergraduate student retention decreased by up to 25% (depending on the year of study and institution type) at public universities in South Africa. Interestingly, students in higher academic years were the most impacted, with students in second year typically showing similar rates of dropout to previous cohorts.

The figure below presents our estimates of the impact of COVID-19 on dropout at traditional (research-intensive) universities in 2020. We compare retention in 2020 to that of students in the same academic years during the pre-2020 periods. For example, the 0.07 year-3 coefficient at the University of Fort Hare (UFH), indicates that students entering year 3 at UFH in 2020, were 7 percentage points more likely to dropout than students entering year 3 prior to 2020.  This represents a greater than two-fold increase in dropout rates. On the whole, we observe larger increases in dropout during 2020 at historically disadvantaged, merger, or new institutions, and in higher years of study, although there are exceptions (see for example University of Limpopo (UL) in the figure below).

Source: Branson, Ranchhod & Whitelaw (2023a). Data source: Higher Education Management Information Systems (HEMIS) 2015-2020. Abbreviations: US – University of Stellenbosch, UCT – University of Cape Town, UP – University of Pretoria, WITS – University of the Witwatersrand, RU – Rhodes University, UFS – University of the Free State, UWC – University of the Western Cape, UKZN – University of KwaZulu-Natal, NWU – North-West University, SMHSU – Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University, UFH – University of Fort Hare, UL – University of Limpopo.

Within institutions, we compare changes in retention in 2020 by students’ National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) status, which is a proxy for economically disadvantaged students. NSFAS funded students are not found to be more likely to drop out than their unfunded peers during 2020. In institutions where dropout rose for both groups, the unfunded students were more negatively impacted. This suggests that funding may have provided a social support network during the crisis. We argue that institutional responses and the social context of institutions are likely to have played an important role in determining student retention and performance outcomes during COVID-19.

Using detailed institutional data from the University of Cape Town (UCT), we additionally show that improvements in academic performance observed in 2020 (seen across the sector) did not reflect true learning gains. Performance gains made during the crisis were reversed in 2021, widening achievement gaps between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds. This suggests that the improvements in 2020 were influenced by factors like reduced content taught, increased marker leniency, and a reduction in credit loads.

This widening achievement gap, together with evidence that we find of learning loss from final-year secondary school, highlights the need to address disparities through higher education planning. But teaching models can also play a role: we show that blended teaching and learning had a positive impact on first-year students’ accounting performance at UCT in 2021, particularly benefiting students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.


Policy applicability

State funding of students through NSFAS serves an important social security role, especially during times of crises. Further research is needed, however, since high levels of youth unemployment in South Africa, together with the full cost bursary, could incentivise students to remain enrolled regardless of performance. An historically disadvantaged institution with the highest share of NSFAS students is a case in point. Despite being socioeconomically disadvantaged on multiple fronts, and with one of the lowest graduate employment rates, few students drop out, and no change in retention was observed during 2020. Is this a good news story, or is remaining enrolled a survival strategy? Government policy makers should consider this supportive role when reviewing the scheme, while being mindful of the potential effects on student and institutional performance.

Institutions cannot continue as before, and institutional planners, leaders, and decision makers need to put measures in place to avoid future instances that could deepen inequalities. These stakeholders should also be aware of the interplay between student retention and funding and how these dynamics shape institutional planning.

In closing, this project shed light on the intricate interplay between a global health crisis, education, and inequality. We hope that the insights from this work will spark meaningful dialogue and informed action toward a more equitable higher education landscape in South Africa.



We are incredibly grateful to the Spencer Foundation for funding this project, as well as to all those who gave their time, knowledge, and efforts to this work: our co-authors, Murray Leibbrandt, Vimal Ranchhod, Samantha Culligan, and Jimmy Winfield; Jane Hendry and Tasneem Salasa at UCT for data access and sharing institutional knowledge; those in the Department of Higher Education and Training, for providing data and support; and to all our other colleagues in SALDRU and institutions across South Africa who engaged with us on topics related to this study.


Read more about our work

SALDRU Working Papers:

Whitelaw, E., Branson, N., and Leibbrandt, M. (2023). Learning in lockdown: University students’ academic performance during COVID-19 closures. (SALDRU Working Paper No. 289. Version 2).

Branson, N., Ranchhod, V., and Whitelaw, E. (2023a). South African student retention during 2020: Evidence from system-wide institutional data. (SALDRU Working Paper No. 300).

Branson, N., Ranchhod, V., and Whitelaw, E. (2023b). What can we understand about learning loss in 2020 from university application and enrolment data? (SALDRU Working Paper No. 301).


Other project outputs:

Whitelaw, E., Culligan, S., and Branson, N. (2020). Student ability to learn at home: An introductory look at student access to remote learning resources.

Whitelaw, E., Culligan, S., and Branson, N. (2020). Students will return on an unequal footing because of poor remote-learning access, Daily Maverick. 27 September.

Branson, N., and Whitelaw, E. (2022). When campuses close: Using institutional data to unpack South African university students’ enrolment and performance during the COVID-19 pandemic, SALDRU. 31 August.

Culligan, S. (2022). Using census, institutional and geospatial data to estimate the socio-economic profile of post-school students by institutional type (Master’s thesis). University of Cape Town. South Africa


[1] In South Africa, historical (dis)advantage reflects apartheid legislation on the classification of institutions. Historical advantage typically means an institution which was designated to serve white South Africans and therefore received preferential treatment from the government, including state funding allocations.