Alarming Dropout Rates Affecting All South African Universities


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South African Universities are grappling with high dropout rates. Several factors are contributing to student not finishing their studies.


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At the commencement of every academic year, South African universities turn away thousands of prospective students as the courses they offer are filled. However, what is even more concerning is that a staggering 60% of students who are enrolled in university, drop out within their first year.

Universities South Africa’s (USAf), Phethiwe Matutu says only 30% of students complete their undergraduate degrees in their required time (completing a three-year degree in 3 years).

Those percentages could have worsened because of issues like the pandemic that had negative ramifications on the success of students.  

Matatu explains that several factors could contribute to the low completion rate at universities. This includes not making informed study decisions, the language of instruction as well as the culture at universities

"Some students are very alienated from culture when they get to university making it difficult for them to have proper relationships with other students," says Matatu. 

The limited availability of career guidance counsellors in South African schools. Traditionally, these counsellors played a vital role in helping students make informed decisions about their futures and their absence compounds the issue. 

Matatu adds that universities have worked to assist students at risk of not completing their studies. This includes profiling students who require assistance and providing interventions which assist students deal with challenges which could have led a student to drop out. 

Education Activist, Hendrick Makaneta says the differences between basic education (school) and tertiary education could be a contributing factor to the high dropout rates. This is because many students require the type of support they receive at school which is not available at universities.  

students generally need support not only financial support or academic support but even the issues of … emotional support is quite necessary to sustain the lives of students within different universities

Another factor is choosing the wrong course of study. Students may be pressured into programs that don't align with their interests or struggle with the workload of unexpected subjects. 

Maketa suggests that better career guidance in high school could help students make informed decisions.

The limited availability of career guidance counsellors in South African schools. Traditionally, these counsellors played a vital role in helping students make informed decisions about their futures and their absence compounds the issue. 

Maketa believes universities can also play a role by providing more support services to students, including mentorship programmes. They add that mentors who have already navigated the challenges of a particular career path can offer valuable guidance.

Students should be able to thoroughly engage with different universities, and different facilities particularly the fields they want to choose…they should be able to go deeper to understand what it takes, the number of modules that they have to do, skills that they'll have to come up with at the later stage… students must be exposed and in this case, mentorship can certainly go a long way

Maketa also sees value in gap years. This time away from academics allows students to research different careers, visit workplaces, and talk to professionals. This self-discovery can help ensure they choose a programme they are passionate about.

South Africa's high university dropout rate has far-reaching consequences.  Not only does it represent a waste of resources and lost potential, but it can also leave families worse off financially if students accrue debt they cannot repay after dropping out.

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