Tackling the University Dropout Crisis

Alarming numbers of school dropouts is largely a crisis worth giving attention. What's being done in South Africa?


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Going to university is seen as an important achievement, especially for students who are usually the first in their family to do it. However, with this limelight, comes an equal amount of pressure stemming from every sphere of that student’s life.  Whether it’s from their parents, religious/cultural leaders, friends, extended family, the neighbourhood or from themselves, they feel the expectation of “succeeding”.

When you’re this person, you’re not just carrying the title of being a university student, but also the chance to leave a legacy that your parents didn’t necessarily have. This is the sort of pressure that so many of our young people are facing today.

Is this why South Africa has one of the highest university dropout rates in the world according to the last HRSC policy brief? Or is it that only 15% of enrolled students are graduating because of other complexities? What we know for certain is all of these factors contribute, and dropping out of varsity can’t simply come down to laziness.

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Getting to the root of the problem

Statistics aren’t just empty numbers but rather, a bird’s eye view. And from up here, we can start to figure out what’s causing this issue.

It could be that university dropouts were failed by an education system that has yet to mould them for who they are, skill-/ talent-wise – or that our definition of educated needs revising.

What does it really mean to be educated? Could it be that South Africa is still hanging on to an outdated notion of what a good education is? If so, could this be where the missing link is?

What the numbers say

The Department of Higher Education released a report in 2015 highlighting that 47.9% of university students did not complete their degrees – and the sad news, is that not much has changed. At the same time, Inyathelo reported that:

  • SA universities can accommodate only 18% of South African matriculants.
  • Of that 18%, nearly half (47%) will drop out
  • If distance-learning is taken into account, that figure rises to 68%

“All universities had support programs for students who were not adequately prepared for higher education. However, the full impact of these programs is limited because state funding is provided for a maximum of 15% of an entering cohort and because these programs are an add-on. They have not resulted in a fundamental reform of the curriculum structure, which is necessary given the extent of the problem.” – Ahmed Essop, Chief Executive of the Council on Higher Education.

Why dropout rates are high

Jackie Carrol, CEO of Media Works (2018), stated that the reasons why the dropouts could be so high amongst school learners, and perhaps university students, are:

  1. That they leave school to enter the job market to take care of their impoverished families.
  2. Child-headed households: They leave school or learning institutions to take care of their siblings.
  3. Problems resulting from abuse, unexpected pregnancies, and addictions which take priority over learning.
  4. That learners struggle to see the value of education (contrary to the beliefs I spoke about earlier but still a factor).

“This is especially true of children who don’t meet the requirements of their grades and who are progressed or pushed through the educational system by their schools.” Jackie Carrol

As much as Jackie is mostly focusing on school dropout rates, the reasons above are just as relevant to university students as well.

Is this democracy? Recently, I looked at a published review that was released by the South African Government, which shows the successes and the failures of various sectors over the last 25 years. Under tertiary education, there was an increase, with a total of 58,560 students graduating in 1994 compared to 210,931 students in the year 2017.

While I applaud this, we also have to look at the fact that only 22% of students finished their three-year degree within 3 years. In comparison, only 39% finished by the fourth year. Lastly, only 56% of students that registered in 2010 completed their three-year degree, 6 years later.

This shows us that school-leaving kids aren’t as prepared for tertiary education as we thought. Government’s interventions of lowering pass marks and/or getting rid of crucial subjects could have been more damaging than we realised. This can leave students feeling unprepared by the time they enter their first year of study. And, poor academic performance can definitely be something that affects their decision to continue.

The time has come for a new strategy

There’s so much improvement that we as a country can make towards our education system – regardless of racial, gender or cultural differences. For starters, we need to encourage the youth to engage with self-exploration and innovation.

The dropout rates in schools and universities is a cause for concern given the impact this has on unemployment rates, the wasted tuition fees and the psychological aftermath in students who internalise failure. We need a better plan and a new mindset to help give people the skills that will make them employable and fulfilled.

Technology, innovation, practical skills and entrepreneurship are the new gateways to a better future. And not just for individuals – but communities as well. In order to tackle the lack of access to education, social problems and the psychological effects of dropping out – we have to nurture talent in these areas and start redefining what success looks like.


Leon Lategan is The Entrepreneur Activist. He is the Founder & CEO of the School of Entrepreneurship where accomplished entrepreneurs set students up with the necessary knowledge, tools and skills needed to start an income-generating business within a year through their Entrepreneurship Mastery Programme, which is a more practical and affordable alternative to tertiary education. 

Stand a chance to win a bursary worth R19,900!

Discover how the programme sets matriculants up for success in life and business by attending a free Taking a ‘Gap Year With Purpose’ webinar. One lucky attendant will win a bursary when the webinar series ends.

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