Cape Town - University students are dropping out of higher education bus like flies, raising alarm bells over the economic future of the country.

After the concerns over the #FeesMustFall protests, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation said a range of studies in South African higher education, over the past decade, had shown persistently low university completion rates.

With universities across the country holding graduation ceremonies, the foundation said its research has shown that only 32% of financial aid students graduate after five years of study.

The organisation said the cause of students dropping out cannot be approached with a blanket view, as “transition to university is an enormous leap across economic, social and cultural barriers for most first-generation university students.”

Council on Higher Education chief executive Professor Narend Baijnath said generally more students drop out in their first year compared to any other year.

“There are costs associated with dropping out - for the state - subsidy, financial aid, the loss of potential graduates to the economy and society; and for the student, unrealised potential and more circumscribed employment opportunities; for parents, massive investments in their children that have come to nought.”

He said factors that increased the number of drop-outs included academic factors and socio-economic ones.

A number of things need to be done to reduce drop-out rates like curriculum reform and sufficient funding for universities and students, career guidance and improved teaching and learning methods.

“Most universities do their best with the limited resources available, but the problem is extensive and would require a systemic response.

"It also needs to be remembered that student fees are a source of cross-subsidisation for poorer students and for student support,” Baijnath added.

UCT spokesperson Elijah Moholola said last year 2871 students dropped out, while 2005 dropped out in 2015.

“The figures do not suggest any significant increase, as it is important to note that while the number of drop-outs has increased, the total student population has also been increasing over the years.

"In 2016, UCT had a total of 2871 students who dropped out across all faculties and all academic levels (undergraduate and postgraduate) out of an overall student population of 29200. In 2015, the total number of students who dropped out was 2005 (out of 27800), while in 2014 it was 2057 (out of 26500).”

Moholola said Bachelor of Social Science had the highest number of drop-outs, followed by Bachelor of Science, Bachelor of Commerce, Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Business Science.

He said UCT had a range of measures in place to ensure that students were supported in various ways, including the First Year Experience project that aims to improve the retention and success rates of first-year students, the residence tutors' network as well as the Laptop Project, in which financial aid students are provided with laptops.

UWC spokesperson Luthando Tyalibongo said they had noticed an increase in the number of students dropping out. He cited personal, medical, poor academic performance and lack of interest in their field of study as some of the reasons.

“First year remains the most challenging for most students. Universities assist as best they can, based on their limited resources and competing demands.”

He said they provided broad student-centred development and professional services, training opportunities and resources aimed at enhancing the academic experience.

Stellenbosch University spokesperson Martin Viljoen said over the past five years the university had maintained an average retention rate of about 88.4% among its first-year students. The retention rate had increased slightly over the past three years.

“The retention rate is the percentage of students out of the total number of first-year students returning to the university after their first year of study to continue in the second year of study.

"To be admitted to the second year of study, students must pass a minimum number of credits in their first year. This does not mean that students who return to the university for their second year of study have passed all their modules during their first year," he added.

"Retention rates differ between programmes and fields of study," Viljoen said, adding that drop-out was the highest during and after the first year. Their Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences , however, had the lowest dropout rate.

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Cape Argus