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The economic value of matric and the potential of further education colleges

The school-leaving matriculation exam is one of the characteristic features of the South African education system. It would be rare to find a single South African citizen who did not know what the matric exam is, or be able to explain why people think it is important.

On Monday this past week, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga announced that of the 560,000 full-time students that wrote matric in 2013, approximately 440,000 passed, yielding a pass rate of 78%. This was up from 74% in 2012.

But the statistic can be misleading since it completely ignores the 550,000 students that started school 12 years ago and then dropped out of the schooling system, mostly in Grade 10 and 11. To be specific, of every 100 students that started school 12 years ago, 51 made it to matric in 2013, 40 passed and only 16 qualified to go to university.

Matric and labour market prospects

Dropping out of school or failing matric has serious labour market consequences.

Given that there is no pre-matric qualification that is widely acknowledged or accepted, a student who does not reach, write and pass matric, will have no proof of their educational status. Employers will not accept school reports since these are not nationally standardised and are thus unreliable indicators of achievement.

This can be seen when looking at the data from the 2011 National Census. The unemployment rate for 25 to 35 year olds who have “less than matric” was 47% in 2011, much higher than those 25 to 35 year olds that had a matric (33%), a diploma or certificate (20%), and about six times higher than for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Clearly there are economic returns to passing matric, particularly because doing so provides access to further education and training which drastically improves one’s labour market prospects.

In addition to the labour-market importance of having a matric, it is also widely used by universities when determining who gets into what programs. However, many South African universities are now also using the results of the National Benchmarking Tests (NBTs) in their admissions criteria.

Assessing literacy and maths abilities of students

The NBTs were first introduced in 2005 by Higher Education South Africa as a way of assessing the extent to which students were ready for the academic demands of university courses. There are two NBTs, the first one is the Academic and Quantitative Literacy Test and the second is the Mathematics Test. Both tests are three hours in duration, written on the same day and are exclusively multiple-choice. They can be written at numerous times during the year.

Some courses require that students only write the Academic and Quantitative Literacy Test while others require that students write both tests. For example, if a student is applying to do engineering at the University of Cape Town, the matric results count for only half of their admissions points, with the Benchmarking Tests making up the other half.

In light of the above, you might think that the best outcome would be a 100% school retention rate and a 100% matric pass rate. That is both unattainable and undesirable. Such an approach ignores the potential value of an effective vocational education system or a pre-matric qualification that is a reliable indicator of achievement, both of which South Africa currently lacks.

Developing an effective vocational education system is necessary both for individuals whose talents, abilities and aptitudes are more suited to vocational careers, but also to fill the demand from industry for these professions. Even in advanced economies like the United States and the United Kingdom, the secondary school graduation rates are 77% and 87% respectively. One of the problems in South Africa is that there are few real options available to those who do not pass matric.

If we look at youths who do not hold a matric certificate, only 1% held some other non-Grade 12 school certificate of diploma issued by a Further Education and Training (FET) college for example.

Innovative thinking needed

Government’s National Development Plan (NDP) also highlights some of the other problems with the FET system: “Approximately 65 percent of college students are unable to find work experience, which is a requirement for completing National Technical Diplomas popularly known as N diplomas. The college sector is intended as a pathway for those who do not follow an academic path, but it suffers from a poor reputation due to the low rate of employment of college graduates.”

The problems inherent in a matric-or-nothing system are not going away anytime soon. The Department of Basic Education should begin to design and implement an externally evaluated Grade 9 exam and ensure that it does so in such a way that the exam has the trust and respect of the private sector and the public more generally.

While we certainly need to reduce grade repetition and dropout, to aim for universal matriculation would be truly misguided. The problems that face the vocational training sector in South Africa will only be solved with innovative thinking, experimentation and political will.

The aim of educating South Africa’s youth is to enable them to develop their talents and abilities and to lead the sorts of lives they have reason to value. To think that the only way to do this is through formal academic high school is short sighted and dismisses the potential for the FET sector to provide meaningful employment to millions of South Africa’s youth.

Nic Spaull is a researcher in the Economics Department at Stellenbosch University. His blog about education research at and he can be followed on Twitter @NicSpaull
Additional reading:

The internal efficiency of the school system, published by the Department of Basic Education

How many school entrants go on to pass matric, published by the Department of Basic Education

The when and how of leaving school by Martin Gustafson

A note on matric result trends by Stephen Taylor

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