Four ReSEP researchers awarded PhDs

Four ReSEP researchers graduated with PhDs in Economics at Stellenbosch University’s two most recent graduation ceremonies. In the November 2014 ceremony, Dieter von Fintel received his PhD under supervision of Rulof Burger with Servaas van der Berg as co-supervisor. The title of his thesis was Spatial heterogeneity, generational change and childhood socioeconomic status: microeconomic solutions to South African labour market questions. A description of the thesis, with a link to the full thesis, appears below.

In the March 2015 ceremony, Paula Armstrong, Marisa von Fintel and Nic Spaull were awarded PhDs, all under supervision of Servaas van der Berg, with co-supervision by Rulof Burger for Marisa’s thesis. The title of Paula’s thesis was Teachers in the South African education system: An economic perspective; Marisa’s Social Mobility in post-apartheid South Africa; and Nic’s Education quality in South Africa and sub-Saharan Africa: An economic approach. Again, the descriptions of their thesis, with a link to the full thesis, appear below.

These theses again illustrate the strength of the ReSEP approach, whereby young researchers are involved in important and rigorous policy research that also leads to advanced degrees. In this way ReSEP makes a contribution to the development of a new cadre of policy researchers. More than 10 ReSEP researchers are expected to receive their PhDs in the next two years.

From left:Paula Armstrong, Nicholas Spaull, Marisa von Fintel, Servaas van der Berg

Dieter and Marisa von Fintel

Dieter von Fintel (Spatial heterogeneity, generational change and childhood socioeconomic status: Microeconomic solutions to South African labour market questions)

This thesis re-examines South African labour market questions in the light of methodological shortcomings in the prevailing literature. By appropriately accounting for spatial heterogeneity, definitions of “locality” and reverse causality, it finds evidence of wage inflexibility in local labour markets that contributes to high South African unemployment. Next, it uses various estimators and simulation techniques to demonstrate that the high labour force participation (and unemployment) experienced by younger generations will not be permanent over the life cycle. Finally, it convincingly shows that the recall data often used to measure long-run economic mobility is strongly anchored in current circumstances, and will therefore produce unreliable estimates. (Full thesis)

Paula Armstrong (Teachers in the South African education system: An economic perspective)


The weak state of South African education renders it crucial to understand the mechanics determining who enters teaching, how to encourage and manage teacher effort, and how to identify effective teachers. The thesis first investigates the attractiveness of teaching by comparing the wage structures facing teachers and non-teachers. It then explores the theoretical underpinning of teacher incentives and prospects for successfully using such incentives as policy tool. Finally, empirical analysis using an education production function framework of the relationship between teacher characteristics and student performance finds evidence that teachers trained in the post-transition period may be more effective than those trained earlier. (Full thesis )

Marisa von Fintel (Social Mobility in post-apartheid South Africa)


This thesis examines social mobility and cohesion in post-apartheid South Africa by considering three related topics. Firstly, attending a historically white school significantly increases numeracy and literacy scores of black children. Secondly, people still mainly compare their subjective well-being to others from the same race (an improved economic standing of close others such as neighbours affects well-being positively, but the opposite applies to strangers). However, unlike in earlier studies, individuals from other races are now also considered. Finally, separating structural income trends (based on assets) from shocks and measurement error provides no evidence of an asset-based poverty trap or threshold where structural income bifurcates. Instead, the results seem to point to a threshold beyond which structural income remains more persistent. (Full thesis)

Nicholas Spaull (Education quality in South Africa and sub-Saharan Africa: An economic approach)


This thesis applies econometric techniques to education data to measure learning. Quantifying learning deficits shows that the mathematics learning gap between the poorest 60% and wealthiest 20% of students grows from three to four grade-levels between grades 3 and 9. Data where students were tested twice in different languages on the same test shows that the ‘cost’ for non-English home language students of having to write a test in English is much smaller than the effect of home background and school factors. Finally, a composite measure of education access and quality using household data on grade completion and survey data on cognitive outcomes demonstrates that improved access-to-learning indeed improved literacy and numeracy in 11 African countries. Girls and relatively poor children benefited most from this educational expansion. (Full thesis)