Joint effort needed to fix university dropout rate

Engineering students find going toughest of all, with half of them ditching their studies

27 May 2018 - 00:00 By PREGA GOVENDER

About a third of students enrolled for a four-year degree for the first time in 2011 had dropped out by 2016. The worst dropout rate was among engineering students - half of whom abandoned studies six years later.
These figures are provided by the Council on Higher Education. The Vital Stats Public Higher Education 2016 report contains the latest audited student enrolment and graduate statistics of all 26 universities in South Africa.
The dropout rate of 35% for 2011 enrolments was the same as that for 2010. The dropout rate after six years for students who enrolled in 2009 was 40%.
Besides engineering, other 2011 students who dropped out six years later were law (43%), social science (29%) and education (28%).The CHE, which advises the minister of higher education on policy, this week said all universities should introduce extended curriculums in those core qualifications that had the highest student dropout rates.
The council's CEO, Professor Narend Baijnath, said the poor qualifying rate had been a concern for some time.
"Universities are running various extended programmes, but they are doing this individually. It is not systemic. It would be most useful if all universities introduced extended and flexible curriculums in the same carefully selected qualification as a pilot."
He said there had been interventions, including "considerable funding" from the department of higher education. These made extended curriculums possible for about 30% of students.Baijnath said it was found that the "regulation time" or minimum period to complete a qualification was not suitable for most students "who require a longer time for differing levels of preparedness".
"The data indicates that many who do not complete are following curricula in an unplanned way, carrying repeat modules into the following year.
"A redesign of the curriculum structure, which allows time to include the developmental work necessary, would be important to assist many more students to graduate."
Professor Andrew Crouch, deputy vice-chancellor of academics at the University of the Witwatersrand, said Wits was redesigning its undergraduate engineering programmes "to better accommodate students entering the system for the first time".
The restructuring of the engineering programme was intended to provide "a more flexible but rigorous pathway of learning", he said.
"Hand in hand with this has been the introduction of a variety of early diagnostic tests and new interventions to better understand the teaching and learning needs of our students."
Rikus Delport, a spokesman for the University of Pretoria, said "such attrition" in engineering was unacceptable because some of the country's top students were admitted to engineering faculties.
He said the university's studies had shown that the biggest cause of first-year dropouts was "poor course choice".
"Many students are first generation and have no family advice and support or role models."Professor Rory Ryan, executive director of academic development and support at the University of Johannesburg, said the first-year dropout rate had steadily decreased over the past four years, from 18.1% of the 2014 intake to 14.2% of the 2017 intake.
"The root cause is financial difficulties and the knock-on effects, such as access to food, transport, and suitable accommodation. The vast majority of our students battle to make ends meet."
North West University spokesman Louis Jacobs said the institution offered several programmes to assist students academically, including a bridging programme for students who would otherwise not qualify for admission, as well as refresher programmes in maths for first-year students.
University of Cape Town spokesman Elijah Moholola said UCT's completion target for first-time entering students was 75%.
Higher Education Minister Naledi Pandor said she was concerned about the number of dropouts although the rate "is steadily decreasing for all qualifications".
A number of initiatives are being implemented by her department in partnership with universities to promote student success at universities. A R1-billion university capacity development programme being implemented this year would help universities offer programmes that would strengthen undergraduate teaching...

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