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Report: South African Computer Science Graduates

12 April 2024 , by Philip Joubert

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A journalist recently asked how many South African computer science students graduate each year. 1,000? 2,000? 5,000? 10,000? Despite working in the South African tech scene for over a decade and helping thousands of software developers get hired, I realised I had no idea.

So I went all-in to discover as much as possible about these graduates. This report is the result of that research, which includes data from 2000-2021 across all 27 South African universities. I hope you find it as interesting as I have!

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The report is structured in the following way:

  1. Overview
  2. Qualifications
  3. Institutions
  4. Gender
  5. Race
  6. Race x Gender
  7. Foreign students
  8. Do qualifications even matter?

Computer science graduates

There were 9,357 computer science graduates in 2021. This seems significant compared to the 125,000 professional software engineers in South Africa. It’s worth noting that not all software engineers study computer science and many don’t even attend university, so the total number of new software engineers entering the market each year is significantly higher.

We also see the number computer science grads has almost tripled since 2000, growing especially fast in the last 10 years. This is exactly what we’d have expected, given how much software is being produced and used nowadays. It also doesn’t hurt that software engineering pays incredibly well.

Computer science is still a tiny fraction of all university graduates

The total number of university graduates went from 92,874 in 2000 to 233,527 in 2021 - an increase of 150%. Over that same period, the South African population only grew 27%, which means a much larger portion of the population is now attending university. That’s good progress for our society!

That said, computer science students are only a small fraction of these grads, compromising about 4% of grads in 2021. Relative to other courses that percentage has remained fairly flat:

Field 2000 2021 Growth
Computer Science 3,437 9,357 2.7x
Engineering 4,009 14,949 3.7x
Business & Finance 19,937 64,971 3.3x
Education 18,174 41,063 2.3x
Law 5,438 15,118 2.8x
Overall 92,874 233,257 2.5x

From the selection of courses, Engineering grew the most. It’s worth pointing out that a non-trivial portion of engineers become software developers.


The vast majority of computer science graduates are leaving university with either a diploma or bachelor degree.

There’s been a 2.5x increase in the portion of masters and doctoral graduates since 2000. Keep in mind though that in absolute terms these numbers are still tiny (there are fewer than a hundred PhDs graduating each year!).

There’s also been a notable increase in certificates from 2016. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, more people learning more about computer science is good. On the other, I haven’t seen much evidence for their value in the job market. I’m not sure what’s driving this increase in certificates, but it is noteworthy that these certificates are almost all from just two universities (see the institution section for more details).

Possible impact of 2007–2008 financial crisis

In the graph below we removed certificates and diplomas, looking only at graduates earning degrees. The drop in bachelor degrees in the years following 2007 is curious. Could it be that the 2007-2008 economic collapse caused students to change their major or drop out entirely? If so, how will the 2023-2024 tech meltdown affect computer graduates? I wouldn’t expect such a big drop to occur again, but we have seen junior salaries shrinking over the last year which might lead some students to reconsider their options.


Next I looked at which universities these graduates were coming from:

Remote learning is pretty significant in the South African context:10% (1059 graduates) of all computer science graduates coming from UNISA. When only considering degrees, then 14.5% of graduates are from UNISA!

Compared to UNISA, most of South Africa’s top-ranked institutions have fairly small classes: University of Cape Town (354), University of Stellenbosch (281), University of Witwatersrand (354). The exception is the University of Pretoria, which had a 2021 class of 648 graduates.

Breaking the data down by qualification (graph above) reveals a few more insights:

  • Universities mostly fall into one of two categories: 1) Almost exclusively focused on degree programs or 2) Almost exclusively focused on certificates & diplomas.
  • Certificates are highly concentrated among a small cluster of universities: 85% of all certificate grads coming from Durban University of Technology and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.
  • UCT has a disproportionate number of honours graduates. They’re definitely doing something right because it’s evident from OfferZen’s marketplace that companies place a lot of value on UCT honours degrees.

Looking at the same data but filtered to only include degrees (graph above), we can see the University of Pretoria is almost producing as many graduates as UNISA.


Software engineering is stereotypically a male-dominated domain and over 80% of professional developers are male. But over the last decade or so, a lot of effort has gone into changing this. There are dozens of groups and organizations like Django Girls, Girlcode and Code for Cape Town that encourage and support women studying computer science. I wondered if we’d be able to see the effect of these programs on the graduates.

The number of female graduates has indeed increased: in 2021 there were 3872 female graduates, significantly higher than the 1440 female graduates back in 2000. That’s a huge increase in the number of women studying computer science, but does that mean the proportion of women studying computer science has increased? It turns out, not at all.

Looking at the graph below it’s quite evident that there has been no change: the proportion of female computer science graduates in 2021 is almost exactly the same as it was 20 years before.

The mystery of female graduates

Below you’ll see the gender composition of 2021 graduates compared with professional developers. While around 40% of computer science graduates have been female for the last 20 years, only 18% of professionals are female. Does this mean that female graduates don’t end up as software engineers? Or perhaps it merely indicates that software engineers without computer science degrees (of which there are many) are disproportionately male?

I have not been able to solve this mystery, but I did do some further analysis. I thought that perhaps we might find something interesting if we looked at qualifications by gender:

We do indeed find something noteworthy. Women make up 60% of those graduating with certificates and 45% of diplomas, but only 37% of degrees. I can’t really explain why this is the case. As I stated earlier, I’m personally skeptical of the economic value of certificates so it wouldn’t surprise me if many of those graduates don’t become software engineers. However, even if you consider only degrees, the gap between female graduates and professional developers is still large.

I also wanted to see if any institutions were getting outlier numbers of women. Perhaps one or two universities are succeeding to attract women?

It’s clear that two universities stand out: Walter Sisulu University and Central University of Technology. I’m not sure what about their program attracts so many women, but it’s worth pointing out their graduates qualify almost exclusively with diplomas.

As a final exploration, I zoomed in UCT because it’s South Africa’s highest-ranked university and one of the most progressive. As we can see below, there has been a slight uptick in the proportion of female graduates but it’s still fairly flat over the past 20 years.


Our dataset starts in 2000, just 6 years after South Africa’s first democratic election. As a result, I was expecting a big shift in the racial composition of graduates. The data confirms that:

The most notable thing here is the 5x increase in black graduates over this period. This is exactly what we’d want to see as universities become more accessible to all South Africans. The change becomes ever more clear in the graph below, which shows the portion of graduates by race.

Race compared to professional developers

Comparing the racial composition of graduates vs professional developers reveals a big difference: only about 13% of graduates are white but they make up almost half of professional developers. The situation is inversed for black developers, three out of four graduates are black while only 37% of professional developers are.

The pool of professional developers is built over decades, so it’s not entirely surprising that this pool doesn’t yet reflect the most recent cohorts of graduates. I expect we’ll see big changes over the next 5 or so years.

Next I wanted to see if there are racial differences in the types of qualifications. It turned out to be quite a mind-bender:

  • Black graduates earn almost all certificates and diplomas, but are underrepresented in bachelor and honour degrees compared to the SA population.
  • As we get to more advanced degrees, like masters and PhD, we see that the representation of black graduates increases while that of white graduates decreases. This could imply that black graduates are more likely to study advanced degrees.
  • White graduates did not earn a single certificate in 2021, but they are disproportionately earning degrees compared to the SA population.
  • Indians are even more overrepresented with degrees. Despite being only 2.7% of the population, they earned more than 10% of all bachelor degrees!

Some of these insights could be a factor in the racial demographics we’re seeing on the professional level. For example, certificates and diplomas are generally not as highly regarded as degrees by employers. If graduates with certificates and diplomas struggle more to enter the workforce then it might be a small part of the explanation for why there are fewer black software engineers than what we’d expect from graduation numbers.

Race x Gender

As a final exploration of race and gender, I wanted to see what the data looks like when you consider them both:

This view reveals some facinating insights, but I was most surprised by how much the gender distribution varies by race:

  • 47% of black graduates are female
  • 36% of coloured graduates are female
  • 30% of Indian graduates are female
  • 22% of white graduates are female

Next I compared the 2021 graduates with professional developers:

The gender mystery continues with female graduates not being reflected on the professional level. In the graph above, we can see a bit more nuance to that:

  • 2.9% of graduates are white females, but they’re over-represented at 6.2% of professional developers
  • 35% of graduates are black females, but they’re heavily under-represented at only 8.2% of professional developers
  • 2.1% of graduates are Indian females, but they’re under-represented at only 1.3% of professional developers.
  • 2% of graduates are coloured females, but they’re under-represented at only 1.2% of professional developers.

Foreign students

As a final exploration of the data, I looked at foreign students:

Foreign graduates increased fairly rapidly until about 2021 when growth started slowing down. 2021 had fewer graduates than the year before, but this was likely rated to COVID and we’d need to look at more recent years to know what’s going on.

Do qualifications even matter?

So far, we’ve reviewed the data on CompSci graduates but we still need to answer the most important question: how do these qualifications influence the earning potential in the real-world?

Software Engineering is perhaps one of the most meritocratic disciplines: all you need to get started is a laptop, an internet connection and the hunger to learn programming. Does the focus on qualifications even matter?

We can get a partial answer to that question by looking at the qualifications of professional software engineers. In the graph below you can see the higher qualification achieved by professional software engineers. There is an important caveat to add though: the qualifications in the graph are NOT limited to computer science. So they could be engineering, computer science, business, law etc.

What stands out to me is that 22% of professional software engineers in South Africa don’t have any kind of formal education at all. So at the very least, one in five developers are self-taught. And the number is likely far higher given that the 78% who have qualifications include people who didn’t study programming or computer science at all.

OK so it’s possible to get started without a degree, but what’s the impact on compensation?

Self-taught developers earn roughly the same as those with bachelor degrees. At first glance this may seem shocking and you could conclude there’s no value in studying Computer Science at all. There is, however, more to it than that. The types of people who skip university and immediately enter the workforce probably started coding while they were still at school. So they may have coded for years before they get their first job.

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About the dataset

The Department of Higher Education and Training collects data from all the universities and makes it publicly available. You can actually explore the data yourself at heda.co.za!

For race and gender classifications, we used the government-provided data and definitions found in the heda.co.za dataset.

The analysis included data from the following universities:

  • Cape Peninsula University of Technology
  • Central University of Technology
  • Durban University of Technology
  • Mangosuthu University of Technology
  • Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University
  • North West University
  • Rhodes University
  • Sefako Makgatho Health Science University
  • Sol Plaatje University Northern Cape
  • Tshwane University of Technology
  • University of Cape Town
  • University of Fort Hare
  • University of Johannesburg
  • University of KwaZulu - Natal
  • University of Limpopo
  • University of Mpumalanga
  • University of Pretoria
  • University of South Africa
  • University of Stellenbosch
  • University of the Free State
  • University of VendaUniversity of Western Cape
  • University of Witwatersrand
  • University of Zululand
  • Vaal University of Technology
  • Vista University
  • Walter Sisulu University

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