Low retention rates at SA universities

Some key numbers regarding the drop-out rate at South African universities:

  • SA universities can accommodate only 18% of South African matriculants.
  • Of those 18%, nearly half (47%) will drop out
  • If distance learning is taken into account, that figure rises to 68%

Low retention rates at SA universities

The University of Johannesburg recently announced a new initiative to help first-year university students cope with their studies. The South African National Resources Development for the First Year Experience and Students in Transition aims to find solutions to this problem. It has been funded by the Department of Higher Education and Training for the next three years.

A study conducted by the Council on Higher Education (CHE) and published in 2013 said students performed poorly at university because they aren’t properly prepared by schools. However, does such a conclusion merely allow the higher education sector to shirk responsibility for these appalling numbers?

Says Dr Andre van Zyl, director of the University of Johannesburg’s (UJ) Academic Development Centre and head of the South African National Resource Centre for the first-year experience and students in transition, “We have to work with the students we’re getting – there aren’t any other students out there and we need to teach the ones we’re actually getting.” Van Zyl says the first year is the most critical for students to succeed at university but many of them get lost or fall through the cracks of the system due to lack of support and other factors. Van Zyl adds, "They don't know what services there are. Whether or not this is given to them in orientation [week], it's definitely not given to them in a way they can understand it ... Multilingual support is also critical, as are mentors."

Cultural issues can also be added to the mix. Wits student Ntobeko Khumalo, spoke of family pressure to pursue qualifications that students might not choose themselves."You get a guy who comes from the rural areas and he is probably the first person in his family to go to university and their hopes are all on him," she said. "His family doesn't want him to study a BA, they want him to be an engineer or a doctor. But sometimes he isn't interested in those things, so he loses commitment.”

South African Institutions of higher learning struggle to be both western style research universities, and vehicles for transformation. If they are to pay anything more than lip service to the latter, a greater emphasis needs to be placed on teaching and retention. This new UJ initiative appears to be a step in the right direction.