There are 600000 unemployed graduates - yet there are 820000 unfilled positions for high-skilled workers in the labour market, according to estimates from training and recruitment group Adcorp.
This points to a mismatch between the degrees students aspire to and the qualifications employers need.
Loane Sharp, Adcorp's labour market analyst, says the vacancies are primarily in professions such as finance, accounting, engineering, law and medicine.
"The education system is directing people into degrees that are irrelevant," says Sharp.
Adcorp figures suggest the unemployed graduates have arts, social sciences and humanities degrees. "Those skills are not needed in the country," says Sharp.
Instead, there is a need for medical, legal and accounting graduates. "We need more professionals, more senior managers."
But before you throw in the towel over studies, it's worth remembering that a degree remains valuable - and could still clinch you a job if you are up against people who don't have one.
Business is calling for universities to adapt their curriculum to focus on business science, economics and accounting. Some have chastised universities for offering programmes that are generated by academics and have no meaningful bearing on the needs of employers.
Some businesses have set up their own training academies to develop skills they need, such as Standard Bank's Global Leadership Centre, the Tiger Brands Training Academy and Adcorp's recently launched Leadership Academy.
Last month the higher education and training department announced a partnership between the national Treasury, the South African Institute for Chartered Accountants and a number of municipalities to help train mid-level financial administrators in municipalities.
A recent report from Unesco says in Africa, Tunisia produces the highest proportion of graduates at 6.2% of the adult population, followed by Botswana (2.7%), Kenya (2%) and South Africa (0.6%).
While 50% or more of students enrolled in tertiary education in fast-growing countries such as Korea, China and Taiwan are enrolled in science, engineering and technology courses or business, the figure is only about 20% in Africa.
Universities say they have a broader education role beyond helping to meet the needs of the labour market and it's a case of balancing the different demands.
"That's much easier in well-defined professional areas," says Nasima Badsha, chief executive of Chec (the Cape Higher Education Consortium), which comprises four Western Cape universities that work together on certain projects.
John Botha, executive director for strategy at training company Production Management Institute (PMI), says higher education institutions are more concerned with conferring qualifications than producing graduates equipped with the skills needed for them to be effective in their jobs.
Botha says lack of leadership threatens the sustainability of public and private sector organisations. "An international investor simply cannot establish what kinds and levels of skills the South African labour market offers" says Botha.
Companies find it difficult to hire foreigners with the necessary skills as foreigners find it hard getting work permits.
Gerda Kruger, executive director of communications and marketing at the University of Cape Town, says a degree - especially in speciality careers such as science, healthcare, commerce, engineering, architecture and law - shows how far a candidate has progressed in education.
"A degree from a reputable university represents a reasonably objective validation that the graduate has achieved core knowledge in a discipline or field and has the ability to apply his or her mind successfully to advanced study.
Author: Adele Shevel
Source: Times Live