18%; 50 to 60%; R300+ million — figures for SA universities

 

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According to Council of Higher Education (CHE):

  • South African universities have space for only 18% of students who finish high school. I think it is a safe assumption to say these 18% are the best in SA as admission is largely based on performance. (What then happens to the remaining 82%? What percentage gets into other forms of tertiary ed?)
  • Of the students that get admitted into a university, 41% never graduate, that is they drop out because of one reason or another
  • Of these that dropout, 50 – 60% do so in their first year – more than half of the students that will drop out of higher education institutions countrywide will do so during their first year!

IF (big, bold “if” because this is some eye-popping stuff) my Math is right, about 20% of those that get into university drop out in their first year! Taking the example of the University of the Witwatersrand that admits 5 500 first year students, this means 1 100 students face some form of dropout or at least a repeat. With 1 100 students not making into their second year and an average school fees of R30 000 in first year, that’s a whooping R33 million swallowed by the system with no tangible returns. Whether this money is coming from government or corporates via bursaries or, worse still, from parents, this is a large sum. And that’s at Wits only.  The Head of School of Education at Wits said it’s fair to assume that if things are dire at Wits, they are roughly as bad or worse elsewhere. University of Johannesburg has about 10 800 first year places and this dropout rate translates to a crazy R64.8 million! I can’t imagine how much it all adds up to when you consider other universities.

These are scary figures. There are talks about increasing the capacity of universities from 18% to 25% of high school leavers. If whatever needs to be fixed is not fixed, this increase will also result in an increase in dropouts, in money absorbed with no tangible returns, ceteris paribus.

This is a really complicated issue with complex reasons at play but one of my friends asked me what I would suggest should be done. Admittedly I am still learning but my first solution is the wide adoption of a stronger curriculum like Cambridge at high school level. Of course it’s proposing a seemingly simple solution (though not) to a multifaceted problem and blaming everything on the curriculum but I’m convinced it’s a good start. I’ve been a private tutor and also through my startup IQmates, which is largely focused on that transition stage from Grade 12 to first year university level, I get to interact with many students from different universities and their first complaint is the same – “High school never prepared us for this.” It will obviously be tough and expensive in the beginning as teachers have to be found and properly trained, failure rates might increase etc but it will pay off later. As one thinker said “A leader plants a tree for a shade he will not sit under.” Maybe I’m too forward, there has been some progress and we need to see what the CAPS curriculum will achieve.