Why Are South Africans NOT Applying To Business School?

South Africa struggles with its candidate pipeline for graduate business school programs, but recent data shows things are starting to change

The history of inequality in South Africa’s education system has left behind countless challenges relating to higher education. It’s also had a knock-on effect for students targeting graduate management education (GME) as a viable option after school or university.

Problems start at the very beginning—the quality of primary education in the country is ranked 116th out of 137 in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2017/2018.

The ripple effect of poor education into secondary school, and above, correlates with a student body inadequately prepared to sit tests like the GMAT—needed for most business schools.

Only 4,727 people in the whole of Africa took the GMAT in 2017—compared to almost 80,000 in the US and over 18,000 in Western Europe—according to the Graduate Management Admission Council’s (GMAC) latest GMAT Geographic Trend Report. In South Africa, 677 people took the GMAT in 2017; only 49 scored over 700. Then there are the issues of affordability and a lack of awareness around how to actually get to business school.

“In general, [South Africans] have more rote learning where they’re asked to memorize information, and there aren’t opportunities for the kind of discussion and debates we see in western education,” says Ron Sibert, GMAC market development director for Africa.

“There are not opportunities in programs to incorporate reasoning and problem solving, which is why the GMAT may pose difficulty.”

The GMAT is a test of skill, not of knowledge, Ron affirms. Thus, practice is key when it comes to smashing the heights needed to impress admission directors. The long-term goal for GMAC in the region, Ron continues, is to make a difference in countries that have a specific need to manage students through programs that will not only benefit them, but the economy as a whole.

“I’m an advocate of the value of graduate management education in general,” Ron adds, “but, that’s not a presumption over there.

“We need to grow the pipeline. There’s not a lot of awareness among the group of how existing programs like an MBA can have an impact on their career pursuits.”


Read: What Is Africa's Problem With The GMAT?

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The South African government has devised a plan—the National Development Plan 2030—as a response to the stark poverty and social inequality that is prominent in the country. Education is of course one of the strongest pillars within that plan. It is, after all, a strong dictator of social mobility.

The challenge to achieve equality is a battle against history. Decades of apartheid and educational inequality—written into law by the Bantu Education Act of 1953 and then by the Education and Training Act of 1979—have left the majority of black South Africans far behind at the beginning of the 21st century.

Now however, South Africa is on the right path. Smidgeons of optimism are visible in the latest figures showing the progress that has been made in just one generation. According to Statistics South Africa, the largest growth in intergenerational mobility was seen by black Africans. 76% of those who completed post-secondary education achieved a higher education than their parents.

Similar increases are seen earlier in the education system too. Data from the 2016 Community Survey shows that whereas 17.9% of parents completed secondary education, 45.2% of their children—aged between 20-and-34—did.

This bodes well for the future, as the higher the parents' education, the more likely their children will achieve upwards educational mobility. If this trend continues for the next few generations, surely the figures will be rosy.


Cara Skikne, who completed an MBA from the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School and now works as an admissions consultant in South Africa, says that when it comes to pursuing GME, accessibility to funding is a major sticking point.

Cara was only able to embark on an MBA program because she came across Prodigy Finance—a fintech company that offers loans to international postgraduate students.

“The fact that Prodigy Finance existed opened up the possibility [for me],” she explains. “That was my only option to get funding. I couldn’t have got an unsecured loan from a South African bank to study overseas—a lot of people don’t know it’s a possibility.”

The reason Cara came back and entered the admissions space, she says, is because there’s an opportunity gap. Schools are more than happy to accept students from Africa, she adds, but it is during the lead up to going to business school where so many people fall through the cracks.

“I’m happy for people to go to any business school, at home or internationally, but those who want to go international are at such a disadvantage to their peers applying from the developed world.”

The lack of accessibility is mirrored in statistics from the Department of Higher Education. It showed that the number of new graduates in South Africa who registered at higher education institutes was under 158,000 in 2013. Only around one-in-five make it to such institutions after school. Alternatively, the data shows, only 12% of school children entering Grade 1 in South Africa make it to higher education.


Tim London, senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town (UCT) Graduate School of Business (GSB), echoes Cara’s sentiments. The biggest problem he sees in South Africa is the gap between the haves and have-nots.

“We’re in a place where there are some opportunities for a small number of people, [but] a huge swathe of the population has no access, and generationally have had no access, to wealth, land, or opportunity,” he says.

The Economist puts Q1 unemployment in South Africa at 26.7%. Tim says that focusing on corporates will never get you the level of employment required to see proactive change in the economy—entrepreneurship must play an active role. Social entrepreneurship, in particular, is pertinent to the struggles facing South Africa.

Your typical MBA, or postgraduate degree, that would allow you to develop your own social venture, remains “enormously expensive,” adds Tim. “Some people have access to the money, some don’t,” he continues.

“There is excitement and people want to do it, so how can we make it financially accessible to more people?”

A full-time MBA requires you to take a full year off work too. Another financial burden says Tim. One which a lot of people look at as too much of a risk.

Conrad Viedge, the MBA program manager at Wits Business School, says this is why they have a problem recruiting for their full-time MBA program. “Because of the economy in South Africa for people who have to take a year off work to study, that’s quite a commitment,” he says.

The climate lends itself to the part-time program, Conrad explains. “We prefer student learning on the part-time,” he says, “as they can apply what they learn [in the week] straight back into work.”

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