Durban - Only 4% of those who start school in South Africa end up with a degree and many do not even get to matric.
This is according to research looking at "higher education access and outcomes for the 2008 national matric cohort", by Hendrik van Broekhuizen, Servaas van der Berg and Heleen Hofmeyr, all of the department of economics at the University of Stellenbosch.
The research found that of those who started school:
* 60% wrote matric.
* 37% passed matric.
* 12% gained access to university within six years of finishing school.
* 6% completed an undergraduate qualification within six years of finishing school.
* 4% completed a degree within six years of finishing school.
A substantial proportion of those who started school did not get to matric and Van der Berg told The Mercury the biggest issue was that the school system was "extraordinarily weak" for a big proportion of the population.
Around 80% to 85% of South African schools were not up to international standards, he said.
Professor Labby Ramrathan of the University of KwaZulu-Natal's School of Education said it was difficult to understand why, but there was a "lack of interest in schooling".
He said external pressures took children away from school and when they reached the age of 15, they could choose to leave and often did because of their socio-economic environment.
Educationist Professor Graeme Bloch said the poor got poor schools - "schools that simply aren't good enough". Progression was not the solution, Bloch said. "You just pass and progress them, even though they don't deserve it."
The authors combined matric exam data from 2008 to 2013, data from South African universities from 2009 to 2014, data from the Educational Management Information System masterlist and data from the 2011 national census, to investigate university access, throughput and drop-out for the 2008 national matric cohort over the six-year period after they finished school.
Another finding was that almost a third of those who finished school with a bachelor pass did not go to university - at least not during the next six years.
Of the 111 680 matriculants who achieved bachelor passes in 2008, 35 193 did not go on to study at public universities - for diplomas or certificates or degrees. Of these, 13 303 were from quintile one to three schools (considered poor or under-resourced) and 18 195 were black.
"From the perspective of human resources, it appears as if there is a lot of waste', in the sense that many students performing well in matric never go on to further university studies," the report read.
"In a skills-hungry economy, this is surprising and worrying. It is even more so when this is the case for black students or for students from poor backgrounds."
Van der Berg said the authors simply could not explain this. "We don't know why," he said.
Bloch agreed, but Ramrathan said simply that some did not want to go to university. And, he said, universities did not have the capacities to accommodate all school-leavers. They were meant to be places "to develop the intellects" of the country, he said, but they had become commodities.
In looking at those who did go to university, the report found that access was not drastically skewed in terms of race or wealth.
"It is widely believed that access to university among those who qualify to go to university is skewed in favour of wealthier matriculants, and particularly to whites," it read.
"The results are surprising in that there are only small differences in the composition of the two sub-groups of students who achieved bachelor passes, namely those who do and those who do not access university in the subsequent six years."
A total of 56.4% of the bachelor passes achieved in 2008 were achieved by black matriculants, and 58.6% of all those with bachelor passes who went to university were black.
Matriculants in the poorest three quintiles achieved 35.2% of all the bachelor passes in 2008 and made up 34% of those who gained university access - indicating they were less inclined than average to gain university access, but only slightly.
Of the white matriculants from 2008 who achieved bachelor passes, 63.4% went on to study at university in the subsequent six years, while 71.2% of their black counterparts did. However, the report did note that 93% of white students in this group enrolled in degree studies, while only 75% of black students did. So black matriculants who achieved bachelor passes were more likely to enrol in undergraduate certificate or diploma programmes than white matriculants who achieved the same.