Tackling student attrition requires systemic interventions

The phenomenon of student attrition continues to draw attention across the globe owing to its undesirable effect on the massification and diversification of higher education systems.

In Ethiopia, student attrition is considered to be of significant importance within the education sector due to its critical role in meeting national goals and institutional objectives.

Ethiopia’s various national policies identify the development of human capital as a key strategic tool for poverty reduction, economic development and meeting the country’s aspiration of becoming a middle-income country.

Pragmatic considerations related to the surge in student numbers at the lower levels of education have also been forcing the system to expand at an unprecedented scale. Currently, there are nearly 30 million students enrolled in primary and secondary education in Ethiopia.

In addition, about a million students are also accommodated in the higher education sector due to the burgeoning demands for university education.

As much as the continued expansion of the sector, in response to the growing demand for higher education, has been hailed as a remarkable achievement for a country that had a slumbering education system for many years, there have been arguments against the current ‘unbridled’ growth and its concomitant challenges.

It is interesting to note that, within the wider debate about Ethiopia’s higher education expansion, one element that is consistently missing is how much the attrition rate at universities is affecting the envisaged success rate of students which the system seeks to achieve.

Student progression and documentation

The proper recording of student progression is a key element that should precede any form of intervention on the attrition front.

The importance of data management is emphasised in Ethiopia’s 2019 higher education proclamation and the requirements of the country’s Ministry of Science and Higher Education.

Higher learning institutions are expected to gather and document all the necessary information, including the level of students’ attrition, reasons for dropout and the measures or actions taken to minimise attrition rates.

Higher education institutions are equally required to make such information available to internal and external users. However, a consistent observation of most Ethiopian universities is deficiencies in the systematic gathering of student data and poor knowledge about their own students’ progression.

Most institutions do not produce consistent and reliable data on student retention due to limited sources of information, inaccuracies and poor systems and mechanisms to calculate attrition.

Despite being identified as one of the most widely studied areas of higher education, spanning more than five decades of research interest in other parts of the globe, there is very little research in the Ethiopian context that offers a comprehensive picture about student progression and attrition.

The only national data available appear to be compiled by the Higher Education Relevance and Quality Agency (HERQA) which publishes reports of the quality audit exercises it has been conducting on public and private universities since 2007-08.

The national data published by HERQA are useful and provide information about the rate of student progress, causes of attrition, institutional practices in the documentation of student progression and the measures taken to combat existing challenges.

Scope of student attrition

In the earlier years, public universities, on average, lost about a third of their students before graduation. The situation was particularly dire in some universities, where up to half of students from a single cohort were lost.

The biggest loss in students occurred during the transition from freshman to second year, indicating the urgent need for giving special attention to the freshman level.

When it came to the retention and progress of female students, the rate at which universities lost them was disproportionately high compared to the attrition rate at institutional level. This trend was observed across all universities.

More than half of the female students enrolled in most universities did not progress to the final year and the rate of attrition for female students at the level of programmes (within departments as the operational units offering the programmes) was also higher than that of male students.

Causes and measures to combat attrition

As may be revealed in the quality audit reports published by HERQA, the major reasons that explain student attrition at Ethiopian universities can be classified into personal, institutional and social factors.

The challenges are found to be related to poor preparation, poor academic background, low academic achievement, academic failure, heavy workload, lack of advice and tutorials, poor affirmative action support, lack of continuous assessment, shortage of reference materials, limited internet access and personal problems related to ill health, financial problems, legal problems, personal conflict, language and socialising problems.

The particular reasons that contribute to student attrition are not restricted to a limited set of factors but are rather indicative of the multifarious and complex nature of the causes of attrition and possible variations among institutions.

Arguably, commensurate efforts needed to be made to curb the loss of students by way of availing relevant data and taking appropriate measures.

Recent developments

HERQA’s audit reports of recent years indicate positive changes in the student attrition rate of Ethiopian universities as compared to a decade back. There are two contrasting views within the university community to explain the recent change.

On a positive note, one would like to assume that this must be due to the efforts of universities to tackle the problem. In fact, some universities claim that the positive trajectory was achieved because of support services they provide to students such as learning materials and financial support for those with economic problems.

However, there is an opposing view. It suggests the reduction in attrition rate is mainly due to grading practices that instructors are adopting either through direct or indirect influences from their institutions.

In one of its institutional reports, HERQA documents the following: “According to [respondents], the reduction in attrition rate is due to leniency in grading. The students are sure of graduation once they join the university, irrespective of their academic performances. Such policy has significantly reduced the rate of attrition but it has to be done without comprising the quality of education.”

Similarly, HERQA’s audit reports indicate that, even where institutional authorities claim that improved retention emanates from their own efforts, these have, in most cases, been refuted by students. Instead, students attest that such efforts do not exist; and if they do, they are cosmetic, disorganised and unsustainable. This should be a cause for serious concern.

Cosmetic changes or genuine interventions?

For too long, the overall attrition rate experienced in the Ethiopian higher education sector has been counter to what has been envisaged to be attained at national level.

Commensurate with the situation in most higher education systems, it has been strongly argued that neglecting such a significant issue cannot be tenable in the context of national policies and institutional priorities that aim at promoting wider participation and gender parity.

It has been repeatedly suggested that the system closely examine the nature of student attrition and seek improvements and changes through a combination of policies, strategies and relevant activities.

While the efforts to address attrition are commendable, observable practices to ensure a high level of student retention without making authentic systemic interventions are counterproductive to the system.

In this context, the challenge to replace lip service with the commitment to address the underlying causes of student attrition and the development of ways to mitigate the challenge remain more pressing than ever.

Wondwosen Tamrat is an associate professor and founding president of St Mary’s University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a collaborating scholar of the Programme for Research on Private Higher Education at the State University of New York at Albany, United States, and coordinator of the private higher education sub-cluster of the Continental Education Strategy for Africa. He may be reached at or