A shocking 40% of South African students drop-out of university in their first year, a major study has found. Financial difficulties among the country's large pool of poor black students are, unsurprisingly, largely to blame first generation students from low-income, less educated families are the most likely to drop out.
The Student Pathways study by the Human Sciences Research Council also found that on average only 15% of students finish their degrees in the allotted time. High student drop-out and failure rates are a major problem in a country with limited state resources, a desperate shortage of high level skills and a pressing need to raise income levels among the poor.
While South Africa has a highly successful National Student Financial Aid Scheme, which supports about 120,000 of 735,000 university students, loans and bursaries do not cover the full costs of study, leaving poor students struggling to meet living and other expenses.
Lack of finance emerged as the major impediment for students, said Moeketsi Letseka, the senior researcher who conducted the study. Letseka said this was to be expected considering that on average their monthly family income was between R400 (US$60) and R1,600 (US$240).
Around 70% indicated that they had no siblings with university experience, which suggests that they are first-generation university students in their families, he said.
Financial difficulties had compelled most of the students who dropped out to take up a part-time or full-time job: While this was necessary in order to augment their meagre financial resources, there is no doubt that juggling study and worked proved to be another reason for not focusing on studies, Letseka points out.
Why students leave: The problem of high university drop-out rates sought to understand factors influencing the pathways of students through universities into the labour market. The researchers traced a 2000-02 cohort of students who dropped out or graduated from seven very different institutions around the country.
They drew on data from the Education Department, institutional reports, qualitative interviews with academics and managers, and a postal survey of 34,000 respondents. Of these, 20,000 had abandoned their studies and 14,000 had graduated.
The return rate was 16%, or some 5,400 former students. The full report will be published in November.
The study found that among students who dropped out from the seven universities, on average 70% came from low-income families. This proportion rose to 82% at the historically disadvantaged University of Fort Hare. Low family income generally equated with lack of formal education.
Black Africans comprised the largest proportion of students with low socio-economic status. While 73% of black students were from low income families, only 12% of white students were and, conversely, only 9% of black but 47% of white students were from families with high incomes.
Other reasons for high drop-out rates, reported in local newspapers, were poor career choices, domestic problems, pregnancy and too much partying.
Universities are struggling solve the drop-out problem, given its largely financial basis, but have called on government to raise student loans and bursaries to relieve the financial pressures on needy students. In the past decade many institutions have also introduced academic support systems for students from sub-standard schools.
Earlier this month the distance University of South Africa (Unisa) announced it would spend nearly R50 million (US$7.5 million) to establish a comprehensive network of tutors and academic support personnel across the country, in an effort to decrease drop-out and failure rates.
If dropouts are mostly because of financial problems then why donâEUR(TM)t we hear of a lot of advertisements from big companies that are giving out bursaries. I think they should go out there and make sure that the information is reaching those in need. It does not help when they put up information on their web sites because students who need it can hardly go to internet cafes.
I am from the poorest of townships and was also one of the first generation in my family to further my studies in university. I therefore do not agree with the statement that "first generation students are most likely to drop out". If you have something that drives you, you will make means even in the smallest paths to get what you want. You just need to know what it is that you want. "Impossible" is indeed nothing. All you need is drive! This applies to anyone and everyone despite their background.
With the average income of black south african family is less than R5,000 (US$647) per month, how can you expect a learner to afford a university degree which would cost R30,000-40,000 per annum? Bursuries and student loans can be mere temporary measures. What should do is to open public universities which would cost not more than R1,500 per annum for a basic degree. The money should be borrowed from the World Bank or IMF. White controlled business houses would not invest in such a venture.
Although this research concludes that the most likely to drop out of university are first generation students from low-income and less educated families, in my experience as a university lecturer for six years, my observations have been that the more committed and hard-working students are - in the majority of cases - those that come from low income and less educated families. Their socio-economic conditions motivate them to work harder in order to be assisted financially in the form of bursaries and study loans. Let me share briefly with you my background. With a gardener's monthly salary of R1800.00 (US$240), my father took me to one of the top universities in South Africa. Coming from a poor family of five, I made completing my degree in record time my top priority, which I did. I had friends from the same background as mine who also completed their studies in record time. Being poor deprived us of opportunities to hang out with friends at weekends.
Dropping-out is a problem throughout the world. It is by no coincidence that it is concentrated among low income groups where class, race and disadvantage intersect to worsen the situation. That some hard-working individuals will take their education seriously is true, but such an individualistic approach is not helpful as it privatises responsibility for success to the individual while neglecting the societal factors impeding individual success. Let's deal with the basics first, fight poverty and widen access for those who cant afford to pay for university and lets not burden them with loans.
High drop-out rates not just limited to South Africa. As someone who will be an undergraduate student soon, I can understand the financial implications of such a venture and how difficult it can be. But we are in desperate need of an educated nation, so our country's future can be bright. I do admire everyone who has a degree who comes from a disadvantaged background. Now that takes hard work, dedication and is very inspirational. Now let's just lower that high drop-out rate...
Dropping-out is a problem throughout the world. It is no coincidence that it is concentrated among low income groups where class, race and disadvantage intersect to worsen the situation. That some hard-working individuals will take their education seriously is true, but such an individualistic approach is not helpful as it privatises responsibility for success to the individual while neglecting the societal factors impeding individual success. Let's deal with the basics first, fight poverty and widen access for those who can't afford to pay for university and let's not burden them with loans.
Email to a friend
Comment on this article
Disclaimer: All user contributions posted on this site are those of the user ONLY and NOT those of University World News or Higher Education Web Publishing, their associated trademarks, websites and services. University World News or Higher Education Web Publishing does not necessarily endorse, support, sanction, encourage, verify or agree with any comments, opinions or statements or other content provided by users.