on March 17th, 2017

In 2013, Nicolene Murdoch, the executive director for teaching and quality at Monash South Africa – a higher education institution – said that historically only 15 to 20% of South African students at universities end up graduating.


More recently, in 2015, the Council of Higher Education calculated the dropout rate (or more formally, the attrition rate) of students that had been studying five year degrees countrywide. The research found that 18% of the country’s 18 to 24 year olds entered university in 2015, but of that number 50% – 60% dropped out in their first year of studies.



EIT Stock ImageAndre Van Zyl, the Director of the Academic Development Centre at the University of Johannesburg, referring to the research, said:

“Part of what we have to ask ourselves is whose fault is this. We try to give simple answers to complex problems. People blame a variety of things like schools and the universities. The reasons are as complex as the number of those who drop out.”




The Department of Higher Education’s latest report on the topic – Statistics on Post-School Education and Training in South Africa – indicated that only 185,375 people graduated from South Africa’s 26 universities in 2014. Out of that group, 5,680 of them were engineers. How many engineers failed to complete their studies is unknown.

A study conducted at the School of Chemical Engineering at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, published in the South African Journal of Science alluded to various reasons for students dropping out of university. The study’s author, Jonathan Peacock writes:

“The first is academic exclusion of students from a department or faculty as a result of slow academic progress. The second is ‘walking away’ – in other words, those students who leave universities before completing their degrees regardless of progression. The third is financial leavers (or financial exclusion) where students leave because of an inability to continue to fund their studies.”


The high drop-out and failure rate of engineering students in South Africa may also have something to do with a relatively new attitude to Mathematics in the schooling system. Sara Muller, a researcher at the University of Cape Town, wrote in an article published late last year,

“In the past 20 years there’s been a major shift internationally towards thinking of education in purely economic terms (as opposed to critical citizenry, creativity or self-actualization). This reduction of education to purely economic ends, coupled with the conflation between mathematical prowess and problem-solving skills for the “knowledge economy”, has resulted in mathematics being isolated as “essential knowledge”. Its proponents insist that maths is required for an education of value.”


The consequence of this change in attitude has been to push students into studying Maths whether or not they have an inclination to do so, let alone the aptitude for it. She explains,

“To fully appreciate this shift in thinking, South Africans need to suspend their collective amnesia: passing mathematics was not a requirement to move into Grade 10 a generation ago. And yet adults from this era are often economically productive, creative and academically accomplished. Many would publicly acknowledge their own struggles with numbers.”


She points out sagely that,

“The vast majority of jobs of many flavours and incomes do not require the type of maths taught even in Grade 9. This is forgotten when mathematics is positioned as supremely important for the job market, or for students’ personal development.”


The inherent danger of this drive for compulsory maths (and there is evidence of it already) is a drop in standards. And the consequence of this: students who are determined to complete tertiary qualifications in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and maths) will not cope.

This may indeed be partly responsible for the low numbers of engineering graduates, but it cannot be the only factor. Electrical Engineering students from the University of Pretoria were asked to give a rough guesstimate of what the dropout rate in their modules might be, based on their observations in class. The students reported that 40-60% of those who start out in the first year are not present in final year modules.


One of the students, who asked that his identity not be revealed, said:

 “I don’t think the dropout rate is as high as the module failure rate. People fail enough to give up, or fail enough to be told to give up. I think a 60% attrition rate is an accurate amount if you only look at how many of us started and how many you don’t see at the end.”


It is abundantly clear that brick-and-mortar higher education institutions are struggling to retain students in courses across all faculties, but engineering student retention rates appear to be particularly low.

EIT Stock Image


Is online education the answer?

The Deputy Dean of the Engineering Institute of Technology (EIT), Steve Steyn, cut his engineering teeth at the University of the North West in South Africa.

Steyn says that when he studied engineering in 2006, out of a class of 250 students, only 22 graduated. The attrition rates in South Africa have not improved. Engineering remains notorious for being a field of study with large student drop-off numbers 11 years later.


The Engineering Institute of Technology recently introduced prospective South African students to the future of higher education: interactive, online education and training.


Steyn, speaking to a crowd in Johannesburg in South Africa last week, said that EIT’s most recent performance measures revealed the attrition rate to be much lower than figures quoted above. The college is, however, aiming for a retention rate of 80% which it is not yet achieving, Steyn said. 


Steve Mackay, the Dean of EIT has been involved in a good number of the publicly accessible Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS), hosted by top-tier American universities. He has witnessed a 90% attrition rate.

He lamented that a free MOOC course, for the purposes of continued professional development, with 10,000 students initially registered, eventually fell to only 400 (not because of a lack of quality).  He points to the absence of interaction between student and lecturer as one of the reasons for the high rate of attrition. He said:

“My suggestion to students: avoid asynchronous online education where possible and instead attend courses where lecturers and students meet in real time, in a video conferencing or a web conferencing format. This is called synchronous online learning. This type of inflexible e-Learning is what drives students to graduate because they are able to ‘meet’ and ‘interact’ with their teachers and fellow students; they become engaged with the content and the learning process. With this platform of education some of our courses have a low 10% attrition rate.”


Works Cited

Comments, News24WireMay 19 201536. “South Africa’s Alarming University Drop out Rate.” BusinessTech. Web. 15 Mar. 2017.

Pocock, Jonathan. “Leaving Rates and Reasons for Leaving in an Engineering Faculty in South Africa: A Case Study.” South African Journal of Science. Academy of Science of South Africa. Web. 15 Mar. 2017.




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