Inside South Africa’s massive university drop-out problem

Only a fraction of South African matriculants move on to study at university – and an even smaller percentage actually manage to get a degree within six years, new research finds.

Data compiled by the Department of Economics at Stellenbosch University, looking at higher education access and outcomes for the class of 2008 matriculants, found that only 20% of students go on to study further at university – and only half of them (10%) manage to complete their studies.

The paper was compiled using data from the 2008 to 2013 matric examinations in South Africa, as well as data from South African universities covering 2009 to 2014.

The core conclusion to the report is that university access in South Africa is extremely limited – even among learners who perform relatively well in their matric exams.

In addition, the data showed that those who do gain access to university often take a long time to complete their studies, with many never completing at all.

“As a result, only a select minority of matric learners manage to obtain university qualifications,” the researchers said.

Breaking down the numbers

According to the data, approximately 112,000 students from the class of 2008 (561,667 matriculants) entered into university – this is only one-fifth (20%) of the total.

Right off the bat, South Africa faces a problem where skilled matriculants are not furthering their education – with the report noting that of the 111,680 learners qualified for bachelor passes, only 76,487 went on to enroll at university.

Worryingly, among the 52,678 learners who achieved 55% or more for mathematics, approximately one in five (20.6%) or 10,840 never entered university at all.

Making matters worse, however, the study found that 30% of students who enrolled at university dropped out before 2014.

Class of 2008 Students All % UG %
Cohort 561 667 100.0%
Enrolled in undergrad studies 112 402 20.0% 100.0%
Enrolled in undergraddegree 70 632 12.6% 62.8%
Completed undergrad qualification 55 721 9.9% 49.6%
Completed undergrad degree 38 229 6.8% 34.0%
Enrolled in postgrad studies 13 466 2.4% 12.0%
Completed postgrad qualification 9 727 1.7% 8.7%
Non-completed by 2014 22 426 4.0% 20.0%
Dropped-out before 2014 34 163 6.1% 30.4%

About 50% of enrolled students went on to complete their undergraduate qualification, while the remaining 20% were still enrolled in 2014, having not completed their degrees within the six years under review.

Notably, not all of the students in the class of 2008 enrolled at universities in 2009, with many choosing to do so after two, three or even four years after matriculating.

An even bigger problem

The study focused on students that made it to matric and went on to study; however, a further breakdown of the research shows an even greater problem brewing.

The matric students in the class of 2008 represent roughly only two thirds of the learners who started school in the group.

This means that the number of students who eventually go on to complete a university qualification represents only 6% of all the learners who started school in 1997.

Students who get a degree within 6 years of starting university represents only 4% of the group.


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Inside South Africa’s massive university drop-out problem