The graduation rates among undergraduate students in South Africa’s 23 public universities is 15 percent. The rate for Master’s students is 20 percent and for doctoral students 12 percent.

These figures are contained in the Department of Higher Education and Training’s first annual statistical report, published this year, which looked at the “size and shape of post-school education and training in South Africa”. Nicolene Murdoch, the executive director for teaching and quality at Monash South Africa said the graduation rates had ranged from 15 percent to 20 percent for several years now She said the reasons for these low rates included financial constraints — students enroll for courses but don’t have funding to see them through — lack of academic preparedness, and students not getting enough support from their universities.

Murdoch, who is also the president of the South African Association for Institutional Research, said the highest failure rates were in the maths and science programmes which covered medicine, science, technology and business studies. She said students tended to struggle with “anything with a maths component”. Students who hopped from one course to another also contributed to low graduation rates. She said students who weren’t well informed on the various career opportunities and those who didn’t fully appreciate what studying towards their chosen field entailed, also lead to low output rates as they struggled with learning areas they were not suited or skilled for.

The report contains data collected over 2011 and last year on public universities, public and private Further Education and Training Colleges and public and private Adult Basic Education and Training Centres and other education and training institutions. It is a first by the department and it is intended to become a yearly publication. During the time the report was compiled, there were close to 1 million students — 938 201 — registered at the country’s public universities. Of these 59 percent were enrolled in contact a programme, which means they had to be on campus regularly, and 41 percent were enrolled in distant education programmes.

More than one-third of all the students were enrolled at Unisa, making that university the largest in the country in terms of student numbers. The report said student enrolment numbers ranged from 7 000 to 60 000 students per institution — excluding Unisa. The statistics also showed that more than half of the students — 58 percent — were female. The report said female students “comprise 54 percent of all students enrolled in contact programmes, and 63 percent of those enrolled in distance education programmes. “Black African students comprise 78 percent of all students enrolled in contact programmes, and 83 percent of all those enrolled in distance education programmes,” the report said. “The racial composition of students across (universities) reflects both racial demographic distribution patterns across the country as well as historical continuities.”

The most popular fields of study in 2011, the report found, were business management, followed by science engineering, technology and the humanities. Murdoch said although universities had support programmes such as bridging and foundation courses to help students improve their academic performance, they needed to look at providing non-academic support as well. “We need to consider students holistically.., and look at what they need entirely” Murdoch said things such as student accommodation and adjusting to university life were some of the non-academic factors that had a huge impact on students’ academic achievements.

A review report on student accommodation at the county’s 23 universities published in February 2011 found that only 5.3 percent of first year students, those arguably in the greatest need of accommodation, were in university residences. Of the total number of contact students across all the universities, only 20 percent were accommodated at university residences. The report also found that hunger was a major problem among students, with some going for days without having had a meal. Murdoch said support programmes had to cater to all aspects of a student’s life to improve overall pass rates. “As institutions we have to define what our level of care is,” she said. Murdoch said another factor that contributed to low graduation rates was academics who are specialists in their fields and subject experts but are not adequately skilled to teach.

Institutions have realised this and there is now a move towards ensuring that lecturers and professors are given training to become better teachers, she said. One example is institutions that make it a criterion for a staff member to have a teaching qualification if they’re applying for a promotion. This, she said, encourages academics to focus on improving themselves as teachers instead of spending all their energy on research work. Having students in the system who stay longer than they should strains the institutions’ resources and disrupts course planning and curriculum delivery, she said.

The low output of graduates also negatively affects the labour market. For example, people who finish their courses late may be behind in terms of their level of skills. If, for example there have been developments in the industry, they may not be equipped to deal with certain problems. Murdoch said a healthy graduation rate would be 50 percent. According to the Department of Higher Education and Training’s 2010/2011 to 2014/2015 strategic plan, the graduation rate should reach 20 percent by next year. “I think we’re making progress towards attaining this target but we’re not moving fast enough to get there,” Murdoch said. Nicolene Murdoch executive director for teaching, learning and quality at Monash South Africa, believes students aren’t well informed on the various career opportunities and therefore struggle with learning areas they’re not suited or skilled for.

The article was written by Nontobeko Mtshali: The Star newspaper