South Africa’s alarming university drop out rate

 ·19 May 2015
University of Cape Town

More than half of the students that will drop out of higher education institutions countrywide will do so during their first year, an academic said on Tuesday (19 May).

Andre van Zyl, who is the director of the Academic Development Centre at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) quoted research done by the Council of Higher Education (CHE) in 2013, that tracked students over a period of five years.

He told reporters in Johannesburg that this research prompted the creation of the South African National Resource Centre for the First Year Experience and Students in Transition, which he is currently leading.

“When they tracked the students, approximately 35 people graduated in good time,” he said in reference to the CHE’s “Proposal for undergraduate reform in South Africa”.

This meant they finished their degrees within the normal time.

“Then they continued looking, and found that 41% of those who entered [the institution] dropped out.

“The difference here is that we are working with the top 18% [of the country’s 18 to 24-year-olds]. The institutions only have space for 18%, though the plan is to push it up to 25%.

“So of those top 18% of people who enter, just under half will never graduate. And of those who drop-out, 50 to 60% of them drop out in their first year. That is the gravity of the problem.”

Simple answers to complex questions

Van Zyl said there were a variety of reasons for the high rate of drop-outs, and there was no “magic bullet” that could solve of the problems that first years had.

“Part of what we have to ask ourselves is whose fault is this. We try to give simple answers to complex problems,” Van Zyl said.

“People blame a variety of things like schools and the universities. The reasons are as complex as the number of those who drop out.

“At the moment, that nexus point, between schools and universities that allows students to transition between the two has been broken. However, higher education is taking this matter very seriously.”

He said academic problems played a role, but so too did “life problems”, like housing, finance and food.

Van Zyl said however that the universities did not have to make their academic programmes easier.

“It is supposed to be difficult. However, we must create an environment for students that can create reasonable success for them.”

Survival of the fittest students

He said many thought that the high rates of drop-outs, was merely a form of “academic Darwinism” – which places emphasis on the survival of the fittest students.

Like the theory of evolution and natural selection proposed by 19th century naturalist Charles Darwin, academic Darwinism says that students who drop-out are merely not strong enough and that those who make it through worked harder.

“That position is untenable,” Van Zyl said.

“Universities will not support that decision. Part of the important step is to take responsibility for the things we can change.”

Van Zyl, said that with this in mind, a request was put to the Department of Higher Education to fund the SA National Resource Centre.

Academic gaze

“It was approved – the venue will be at UJ, but we are not representing only UJ. We are going to work with all the universities – it will serve the South African higher education community,” he said.

“We will take existing research and make it available to those dealing with first year transitions. We will make resources available to the country.”

He said more academic research was needed into the first year transition problem.

“We worked too much on gut feel and not on systemic solutions. We want to focus the academic gaze on first year transitions.”

He said the centre was being assisted by the National Resource Centre (NRC) from the United States of America.

“We have been really pleased to provide collaborative leadership and support with the South African National Resource Centre,” the US NRC director Jennifer Keup said.

She said the US NRC would help its South African counterpart to deal with the problems it would face in helping universities “create the next generation of educated leaders who give back to their communities”.


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