If we want to fix our economy, we must increase university graduation rates

Date: Nov 30, 2022 | News, Opinion Pieces


Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the outgoing Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He is the incoming United Nations Under-Secretary-General and a Rector of the UN University. Professor Letlhokwa Mpedi is the incoming Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg.

They recently published an opinion article that first appeared in the Daily Maverick on 29 November 2022.

We need a systemic and systematic overhaul of our education system. But as we explore widening access to education, we cannot do so with the knowledge that we are setting our students up for failure.

The “revolving door syndrome” has long been used to describe the phenomenon of turnover. In the South African higher education context, this is an accurate descriptor of the low throughput rate, indicative of the number of students who complete their degrees in the stipulated time.

In a 2008 HSRC policy brief, Moeketsi Letseka and Simeon Maile warned that this phenomenon threatened South Africa’s future. As they asserted, “this is of particular concern given the shifts that have taken place in employment distribution and the critical shortage of high-level skills in the labour market. In combination, these factors are likely to act as a major impediment to achieving the government’s economic development goals.”

Importantly, this phenomenon has a knock-on effect. It impedes the idea of an efficient and effective higher education system and poses a hurdle to national development.

It is estimated that over 40% of all first-year students in South Africa do not complete their degrees. According to a 2019 government review of the first 25 years of democracy, in the 2010 cohort, 22% of students achieved a three-year degree within three years, only 39% had completed their degrees by the fourth year, and only 56% of students completed their degree by the sixth year.

The review states, “the determination which has seen these students battle all odds to make it to the first year, shows a hidden talent and resilience, which the country can ill afford to lose. Thus measures are required to ensure they succeed when they reach university.”

The 2021 South African peer data provides greater insight into the throughput rate at various higher education institutions. Statistics from the University of Johannesburg (UJ) indicate that while the undergraduate model success rate was 85.8% in 2019, undergraduate completion in minimum time was 44.6%.

Although the success rate is higher than in previous years, it paints a grim picture of the throughput rate nationally. In the same year, 10.7% of undergraduate students dropped out in their second year. Postgraduate output has increased significantly, almost doubling between 2017 and 2021.

Intriguingly, during the pandemic, UJ’s undergraduate success rate increased to 89.2% in 2020 and tempered to 87.5% in 2021. This shift placed UJ third nationally behind the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and North West University (NWU). This calls into question whether distance learning, which could address the inequity of access to higher education, may see greater success rates.

The improvement in the success rate during this period resulted from a combination of factors ranging from teaching strategy, close support, additional tutors and assistant lecturers and the contributions of our students who focussed on completing the academic year. The use of focus groups, extensive academic support, and the deployment of various technologies bolstered this.

Additionally, the UJ tracked student activity, not for surveillance but to ascertain how the university could help and intervene if necessary. These are traditional responses to student retention that institutions in South Africa have been slow to adopt. Importantly, these are the lessons from the pandemic that the UJ will continue to take forward, and we are likely to see stronger success rates. However, it is essential to note that much broader factors are also at play.

In 2021, Mbuvha, Zondo, Mauda and Marwala used machine learning techniques such as gradient boosting and logistic regression to predict academic throughput. The study found that the influence of socioeconomic factors and the field of study were significant predictors of this rate. In particular, race is a crucial determiner of student success. This results from the broader socioeconomic context, such as income, quality of schooling and first-generation entrance, which are often inextricably linked with race.

Letseke and Maile confirm this finding and argue that this represents the broader inequalities nationally, and the current throughput rates threaten to reproduce these disparities. Mbuvha, Zondo, Mauda and Marwala assert that these disparities can be addressed through more significant interventions to bridge the gap for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

This, however, is a vicious cycle — without addressing these broader inequalities at a national level, they will continue to perpetuate at higher education institutions.

Then, there is the challenge of discipline. Mbuvha, Zondo, Mauda and Marwala found that engineering and science yield low throughput rates comparatively. As the authors state, “low throughput and completion rates in these areas exacerbate the national and global skills deficit in these critical disciplines which necessitates urgent and high-impact interventions.”

This calls for interventions that bridge science, technology engineering and mathematics (Stem) gaps. Additionally, language barriers often make the shift to university a challenge, particularly regarding written and verbal communication. As the tertiary sector, we have addressed this through bridging courses and remedial programmes. This is an additive model, and we need creative solutions to mainstream this into the building blocks of teaching and learning.

It is also apparent that we need a far more profound and radical intervention in how we approach education, particularly at a basic level. Compounding these challenges is the cost of higher education.

In recent years, #FeesMustFall protests have demonstrated the burden higher education places on families. Although there are interventions such as scholarships, funding through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (Nsfas) and at UJ initiatives such as the missing middle fund, many fall through the cracks.

Although the pandemic has provided an avenue to explore solutions, broader interventions are required. This is not confined to bridging programmes at universities but needs a systemic and systematic overhaul of our education system.

As we explore widening access to education, we cannot do so with the knowledge that we are setting our students up for failure. Are we doing enough regarding assessment, placement and orientation in the first year and before this? A colloquium held at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in 2009 concluded that there could be no long-term solutions to this challenge without institutions addressing the holistic experience with the declaration that “student success is not coincidental”.

There must be a redefining of approaches to education at every tier, and support structures must be put in place. In addition, as the institutions of higher learning continue to grapple with the challenge of graduation rates and on-time completion of studies, it is imperative that they ensure that their graduates are well-suited for the labour market by, among other initiatives, providing their students with opportunities to gain new knowledge and or skills over and above those expected to be acquired during the normal course of their studies.

One way of doing that is through the presentation of Massive Open Online Courses (Moocs). Such an approach has been adopted by UJ which offers students, staff and the general public an opportunity to pursue its online, self-paced and free-of-charge Moocs which include Artificial Intelligence in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, an Introduction to Sustainable Development Goals and Financial Literacy Be Money Wise.

Without the necessary interventions, widening access will not widen success rates. Most importantly, success rates should result in the meaningful participation of the graduates in the labour market. As Ruth Aluko declared, if we don’t act, access and success will be a mirage.

*The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

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