Higher Education Minister Naledi Pandor has said this trend was a worry for the government.
Pandor raised the question that academics have grappled with for years: Are matrics emerging from the school system prepared for university?
The minister released a report on Tuesday detailing various trends and statistics of the higher education system.
The report revealed that less than a quarter of students completed their undergraduate studies on time. About 70% obtained their first degree after seven years of studying. The situation was even worse in distance education as only 18% obtained their degrees after seven years.
Roughly 20% of the students drop out from universities without attaining their undergraduate degrees. Pandor described the data as worrying.
“The big question I ask myself when I look at these statistics is: Is it correct for us to continue to believe that young people are ready to pursue undergraduate studies immediately upon completion of Grade 12, or should we be looking at a different kind of approach?
“South Africa has refused to answer this question for several years. But the low throughput rates, eight years to complete an undergraduate degree, suggests there's something around the preparedness that we need to pay attention to,” according to the minister.
A hard-hitting 250-page report prepared by a task team appointed by the Council on Higher Education (CHE) and released in 2013 blamed the low throughput rates on the under-preparedness of matriculants for varsity.
CHE, a statutory body that advises the higher education minister, proposed the extending of undergraduate degrees by a year.
The first year would be used for foundation programmes to prepare students for university.
But the minister at the time, Blade Nzimande, rejected the proposal.
Nzimande expressed doubt that the task team, which was chaired by former University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Njabulo Ndebele, had based its conclusions and proposals on correct data.
Asking Pandor a question at the report's launch on Monday, the Human Sciences Research Council's Professor Mokong Mapadimeng said: “Clearly there are many problems in terms of under-preparedness of students."
The situation was so dire that Mapadimeng, who previously lectured at the University of Limpopo, believed that sending all youth to the military after matric might be the answer.
“I think military conscription provides discipline for young people. In universities we're facing violent, angry students,” he said.
“Military conscription might go a long way in terms of skilling our young people who come straight from matric.”
Pandor rejected the military prescription suggestion.
One of the possible solutions she favoured was expansion of foundation programmes at universities.
“Some institutions do it, but not all,” said Pandor, who graduated with her doctorate degree from the University of Pretoria on Tuesday.
“I really think it's a courageous step we need to take to say we want really excellent graduates to come out of our system.”
The Star understands that the CHE forwarded Pandor its report soon after she was appointed higher education minister in February last year.
Speaking to The Star, Pandor confirmed being aware of the study.
“I’m aware of that report. What happened is that increased funding was provided for foundation programmes. But not all universities offer them in all degree areas,” she said.
“But it's clear that much more work needs to be done.
"I think that, based on the statistics we saw, we need to look at which disciplines students are really struggling,” the minister said.
“We need to look into whether there is adequate support there, or should we enhance it.
“Once we use the statistics to probe issues further and then determine action and policy from that deeper analysis, I think we'll find answers to the problems that we've identified,” Pandor said.