Life after 'varsity' in South Africa: rural youth narratives on their post-university trajectories

An NRF-/Thuthuka-funded project (2021-2023) led by Mikateko Mathebula


This project investigates the contribution that universities make to the transformation of rural communities, by exploring and describing the post university life trajectories of low income youth from rural areas in South Africa. The focus on rural communities is important because poverty remains concentrated in rural areas previously segregated along ethnic lines during Apartheid, and set aside for black South Africans. These areas, formerly called Bantustans, comprise the poorest households in South Africa, and have the least developed public services and infrastructure in the country. As such, rurality in the South African context reflects the broader history of colonialism and dispossession - a context that presents significant challenges for young people to access quality education, skills training, or formal employment as pathways to improving their lives. The focus on universities is crucial, because university education is typically presented as the best avenue for social mobility. However, there is little research on university graduate destinations in South Africa, and data that does exist is quantitative and does not have a particular focus on rural youth. Whilst there are recent studies that provide qualitative data on how rural youth access, participate in, and achieve success during their time in the higher education system, little is known about what happens to them thereafter. Understanding the aspirations, livelihood capabilities, employment opportunities, and daily lives of rural youth is important because it is part of the key to achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development - transforming rural communities. However, this transformation should go beyond modernization approaches that lead to rural-to-urban migration or distort rural identity in sub-Saharan countries. Instead, it should focus on ways to improve rural conditions, increase the set of valued opportunities available to rural communities, and make rural lives more sustainable.

Aims of the research

The overarching aim of the project is to:

Investigate the contribution that universities make to the transformation of rural communities, by exploring, describing and documenting through narratives, the post university life trajectories of low income youth from rural areas in South Africa.

The research places rural youth at the centre of its analysis because it seeks to sharpen our understanding of who rural youth are, what their post university life aspirations, livelihood strategies and employment opportunities are, and to identify the untapped opportunities and unseen limitations that exist for them to enhance their individual well-being and valued capabilities, but also to uplift their families or local communities. The purpose is also to explore how rural youth perceive the value of having gone to university, particularly in relation to the extent to which university education has enabled them to achieve their aspirations.

The project's interest therefore lies in how university education helps or gets in the way of transforming rural communities, or perhaps makes no difference at all. The project will therefore document what life after university looks like for rural youth, including the complex challenges these young people face, and the complex trade-offs that they need to make in pursuit of various aspirations.

Goals of the research

In particular the objectives of the research are to:

1. Describe how rural youth mobilise their university knowledge, skills and networks to identify and find, or create, sustainable employment opportunities in rural spaces

2. Explain how university knowledge interacts with indigenous knowledge, culture or values in shaping rural youth livelihood opportunities and strategies (outside of formal employment)

3. Analyse through a gendered lens, how poverty, rurality and university knowledge intersect to affect youth aspirations and urban migration

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