The high drop out rate at universities can be attributed to academic rather than financial exclusion. The #FeesMustFall movement is missing this point, writes IVIWE ATHENKOSI MABONA
In May 2016 the Department of Higher Education released an in-depth report revealing that 47.9% of university students don’t finish their degrees.
According to the report, 24.5% of students ‘dropped out’ of university after their first year and only 14.4% graduated in three years, while a whopping 52.1% graduated with their first degrees after an average of seven years. A staggering 47.9% of the group never graduated. The report further stated that ‘the highest drop-out rates were among black and coloured students, with the report stating that only 11.9% of black students graduated after three years, and 32.1% left after their first year.
The report gave multiple reasons for this high rate of university dropout but more crudely, the reasons were academic exclusion. Academic exclusion is basically when you are forced to drop out of university because you have not done well academically, meaning you have failed to pass enough courses to meet the minimum credit requirements that will enable you to register in the following year.
For example, for an undergraduate humanities student not to be excluded at the University of Cape Town they would have to pass more than three-semester courses which means if they pass less than semester courses in the first year they would get excluded. A commerce student has to pass half the semester courses they are registered in for the year to not get excluded, and that means say out of eight semester courses in the first year of university they only need to pass four courses to not get excluded. For an engineering student to not get excluded they would have to get 80 credits from their first-year courses.
The whole struggle for students in the last three years has been premised on the cruelty of academically deserving students not being able to access university or not being able to proceed with their studies because of financial difficulties. There has therefore been an impression that there are thousands if not millions of students who have the potential, have the smarts, have the academic record, but do not have the money to pursue or continue to pursue their dreams. Free education was therefore presented as a struggle for justice in what is all clearly an unjust situation of a generation being able to fold their dreams because of money.
These records, however, speak a different conversation; academic exclusion being more of a problem than financial exclusion.
Experts attribute the problem of academic exclusion to a few critical challenges. Firstly, as savarsity.com says, the transition from high school to university is no easy and smooth transition. It’s like going from playing soccer in the street or the local playground with your friends to playing soccer in the premier league.
Another thing that contributes to students struggling with adjusting to academics at university, again as pointed out by savarsity.com, is what they call the students’ newly acquired freedom. “Most students have never been away from home, or they were in boarding school but they always had parents and teachers who looked after them and made sure they didn’t get into trouble and checked their progress regularly”.
More critically though, again as many of us would attest from our own lived experiences as articulated on the website; at university, your lecturers are not like your teachers, your classes are packed with many students so you are responsible for yourself. No one will force you to attend classes, you bunk classes at your own risk and you will not get reported to your parents because no one cares. You are treated as an adult in university, you have to take responsibility for all your decisions; if you start bunking classes and get left behind in your understanding of course content you may end up failing your tests and eventually your course if you don’t wake up in time
The director of Academic Development at the University of Cape Town, Professor Ian Scott, says the reason for the low number of graduates in South Africa is because they aren’t prepared “for conventional higher education”. Scott argues that “our structure of education was inherited from the Scottish over a century ago. We have to adjust our curriculum to meet the top end of schooling by adding an extra year to the curriculum to enable all kinds of developmental learning.”
Dr Andre van Zyl, director of the Academic Development Centre at the University of Johannesburg, adds that higher education is seen as complex and a survival of the fittest environment. “I call the situation academic Darwinism. The fact of the matter is that higher institutions and students need each other, institutions do not operate in a vacuum, they are part of communities.”
The fallists, therefore, have managed to summarise the challenges of students to financial exclusion; that if this question of affordability of education can be answered by making education free, this would answer a multitude of sins. Unfortunately, free education does not mean unconditional access to educational institutions. If UCT still required you to have a minimum of four A’s in matric for academic enrolment; that will not change just because education is free.
If the minimum courses that you need to pass in order to continue to study are half your registered academic courses it does not matter how free we can make education, a university will still kick you out for academic reasons, in a free tuition university.
The bigger dynamic, however, is the impact of academic exclusion on financial exclusion, particularly on the next generation of students. If 49% of students do not graduate and those students are mostly from poor black and coloured communities, this poses a serious question about the amount of money that has been wasted on students who do not graduate. It also speaks to future earnings lost that were expected from these students once they graduate.
This frankly means if the students were to fight the monster of academic exclusion by instilling a strong sense of academic commitment on students, encouraging universities to have enough student support systems and to ensure an improved academic learning process. This would increase the number of students who graduate, ensuring that there is enough money paid back into the academic fiscus and ensuring there are enough graduates pumped into the economy. An improved economy means more money into universities, opening more opportunities for more students to be funded.
Is it possible therefore that students are fighting a wrong battle? Could the fallists be involved in a vanity project that seeks to launder academic struggles as financial struggles in order to pass the buck on someone else? How much of the university challenges would be solved by focusing on preventing academic exclusion? These are important questions that have been ignored, intentionally or otherwise.
Mabona is South African Students Congress (SASCO) regional secretary in the Lejweleputswana region of the Free State