Taking a closer look at student attrition and migration

A recent survey which found that more than 50% of South African students felt they were not prepared for the transition from secondary school to tertiary education has highlighted ongoing debates around the causes of South Africa’s student attrition rates and how best to tackle them.

Released on 31 July, the 2017 PPS Student Confidence Index surveyed nearly 2,500 students across the country. The respondents were in their fourth year of study or above and were enrolled in a profession-specific degree at a public university or university of technology.

In 2015, the South African Department of Higher Education and Training put the percentage of university students who do not complete their degrees at 47.9%.

All countries face the challenge of student dropouts. While South Africa’s dropout rate is higher than the European average student dropout rate of 30%, it is lower than the Moroccan rate of 58% among bachelor students. In January this year, it was reported that around one in three students in Australia failed to complete their studies within six years of enrolment

According to Labby Ramrathan, associate professor in the School of Education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, research suggests that poor school preparation in South Africa is a significant factor behind high dropout rates.

However, he said there were also other factors involved. These included negative student experiences, not being able to get places in programmes of choice, inappropriate curriculum mix, poor assessment forms and standards, poor teaching methods, and lack of appropriate content knowledge by lecturers.

Student migration

He said the notion of student 'migration' rather than 'dropout' was potentially more accurate in the South African context.

"While the dropout rates are high, students migrate to other universities, change their enrolments from full-time to part-time studies or re-enter higher education at a later point in their lives and therefore are not lost to the higher education system," Ramrathan told University World News.

According to Ramrathan, different systems within South African universities make it difficult to track student migration patterns.

"More research in this area is still needed to understand more deeply the issue of student migration within universities," he said.

He said the phenomenon of student dropout is linked heavily to the assumption that a student enters higher education soon after high school and progresses as a full-time student to completion.

"This assumption needs to be re-visited as the characteristics of students have changed, as suggested by the student migration discourse," he said.

Nick Hillman, director of the UK-based Higher Education Policy Institute, or HEPI, told University World News that evidence from the United Kingdom shows that student satisfaction is closely linked to whether the prior expectations of students are being met. In addition, many people applying to university express considerable naivety about what higher education is like and this is a bigger problem among more vulnerable students.

"So it is critical that students know what to expect before they reach university if they are to survive the course," said Hillman, who is author of the foreword to the July 2017 HEPI report entitled Reality Check that looks at the expectations of university life from the perspective of the applicant.

Increased enrolments

According to Wayne Hugo, associate professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal School of Education in South Africa, the issue of increased dropouts must be seen against the backdrop of increased enrolments.

"With rapid increases in university enrolment comes added stressors on the higher education system, resulting in more drop-outs," Hugo told University World News.

"We cannot look at increasing university dropout rates across Africa without also looking at increased enrolment rates as more students are enrolling due to a growing middle class, massive expansion of the school sector resulting in more university entrants, rapid increase in private universities, ed-tech revolutions enabling a wider reach at less cost, and increased funding of public African universities,” he said.

Curbing student dropout rates has seen a number of data-driven innovations aimed largely at identifying struggling students and offering interventions to improve academic performance. Data-driven systems are now in place at several institutions which make predictions around dropouts and course grades, and offer personalised course recommendations.

While these are useful, Ramrathan said, greater emphasis should to be placed on meeting student needs.

"There have been several interventions to address student throughput and dropout with a view to retaining them within the university and these interventions include academic support programmes, student support on personal issues and financial support," he said.

Shift in discourse

“However, we need to shift our discourse away from the blame discourse on students and poor schooling to student experience discourse that explores in more detail the needs of students; how institutions can address the programmatic and curriculum needs of students."

"In South Africa, our university curriculum has not been fundamentally changed [since democracy in 1994]. We have had response-driven curriculum change thus far,” he said.

Ramrathan called for “greater introspection” into curriculum design to bring more coherence and resonance to the purpose of programmes.

"For example, why is that we still have two majors in a bachelor degree? Such fundamental questions have not been engaged with in any depth.

"In addition, tight control by accrediting bodies (with threats of de-accreditation as power drivers for curriculum retention and control outside of the higher education environment) limits the deep curriculum engagement that is needed for a fundamental review of the higher education curriculum," he said.

"Within the context of the massification of higher education … the re-purposing of higher education is crucial to address age-old issues such as student dropout, especially within the framework of fitness for purpose and in alignment with young people’s expectations of campus life, and a current job market characterised by the ‘certification for jobs’ syndrome," Ramrathan said.


According to Hugo, one response to high dropout rates has been to more clearly differentiate the higher education space to allow for quality paths into professional, technical and vocational education.

"The issue with this move is that many students in Africa are using the degree as an entrance requirement to [jobs in] the state sector, and don’t really care what degree they get, so long as it provides access."

"The key move … is to improve the uptake in radical educational technologies that are enabling massive expansion of reach at reduced cost whilst at the same time improving feedback mechanisms and support structures," he said.

This called for an “innovation mindset” and risk capital that was prepared to invest in the long-term future of the African continent. He said groups such as private equity fund A1 Capital (owner of Educor Holdings, a supplier of private education) and multi-asset emerging market investor Actis – were “key” in this regard.

Last month, Actis announced the launch of a US$275 million continent-wide network of private higher education institutions across 30 cities in nine countries. The network, to be called Honoris United Universities, aims to educate Africa's next generations of leaders and professionals, according to a press release.