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FACTSHEET: How many South African students graduate?

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The #FeesMustFall movement has placed throughput rates at South Africa’s universities into the spotlight.

“Throughput, quite simply, is how many students who start studying finish studying. Or, how many students don’t drop out,” education economics researcher at Stellenbosch University, Dr Hendrik van Broekhuizen, told Africa Check. It is also referred to as the completion rate, or graduation rate.

South Africa’s statistician-general Pali Lehohla is concerned that the country’s slow throughput rate is clogging up the university system. In a report released in October 2016, Statistics South Africa found that South Africa’s universities were serving almost 1,000,000 students, while the figure should be closer to 600,000. When students complete 3 year degrees in 4 to 6 years fewer new students can be brought into the system.

Lehohla reportedly said that this was “inefficient”, and that the congestion contributes to the cost of education.

What are South Africa’s throughput rates?

 South African students from the University of Cape Town listen to Western Cape premier Helen Zille during a meeting at the university in May 2011. Photo: AFP/GIANLUIGI GUERCIA Students from the University of Cape Town listen to Western Cape premier Helen Zille during a meeting at the university in May 2011. Photo: AFP/GIANLUIGI GUERCIA" />

The most recent research into throughput rates
is a working paper released by Stellenbosch University in September this year. The report tracked the country’s 2008 matriculants - who were the first class to write the National Senior Certificate (NSC) exam -  over six years.

Firstly, the study looked at how many matriculants obtained university exemption but never attended. Over the period studied, 68.5% of those who obtained exemption enrolled at university, meaning just under a third did not.

The class of 2008 was then tracked from 2009 to 2015 across all universities on the Higher Education Management Information System (HEMIS), using each individual student’s identity number. After four years, the completion rate was just 36.9%, but after six years, the completion rate had risen to 58.1%. The completion rate for diplomas and certificates was 47.8%, versus 61.6% for degrees.

The Council for Higher Education (CHE) throughput data tells a similar but slightly different story. Their data followed all those who enrolled in first year in a particular year, as opposed to following a particular year of matriculants, as Stellenbosch University did.

The council found that the first year students of 2007 had a 50% completion rate, when tracked over a period including 2 years beyond the time their degree or diploma should have taken. The 2008 cohort managed a 53% completion rate, with the 2009 cohort once again achieving a 50% completion rate.

Dr Hendrik van Broekhuizen was the lead researcher of the Stellenbosch University working paper. He considers the Council for Higher Education’s throughput data to be South Africa’s benchmark, but feels that the true rate is “between the council’s and ours”, due to students who change course or university getting lost in the data.

Digging into the details

Breaking Stellenbosch University’s findings down by race, the completion rate for white students was vastly higher, at 71.6%. Black students had a 53.5% completion rate and coloured students a 53.8% completion rate. Asian students came in at 62.1%.

It is important to remember though that access is skewed by race - the study found that of those who obtained university exemption, 93% of white students entered into undergraduate degree studies, versus 75% of black students. Van Broekhuizen attributed the imbalance to poverty and also educational overwhelm for students who come from a disadvantaged schooling background.

The dropout rate for enrolled students from the 2008 matric class over this period was 28.4%. This is lower than previously reported dropout rates, with various studies placing dropout at around 50%.

“If someone switches from degree to diploma, it’s not fair to call them a dropout,” Van Broekhuizen said. “Previously people haven’t had access to student record data, so if students changed course, or institution, they were lost. In our study this was not a problem. We know how many students switched and we can still account for those. We don’t count them as dropouts.”

Throughput rates also varied dramatically from university to university. The highest discrepancy was between the University of South Africa (UNISA) and contact universities - after four years, UNISA’s completion rate was 11.3% compared to 39% at contact universities.

Van Broekhuizen said the major reason for discrepancies across universities can be traced back to the matric performance of the students. Certain universities mainly accept students with high marks, while others take a broader range of matriculants. In general, matric performance was a strong indicator of university completion.

Due to the advised 6 year period of study, there isn’t yet comparative information available beyond the class of 2008. However, looking at data for the class of 2009 and 2010 at the 3, 4 and 5 year marks, Van Broekhuizen says there doesn’t seem to be much variance in completion rates. It therefore seems, from early indications, as though these rates are remaining constant through the years.

How does this compare internationally?

Van Broekhuizen said it is very difficult to compare South Africa to other countries, due to the differing nature of the data studied. However, he added that he “would be very surprised if other countries had throughput rates that are as low” as South Africa’s.

A 2015 study by the European Commission looked at throughput rates across Europe, finding a lot of variance. They do note that comparisons should be done carefully, as different methods have been used to calculate the rates. On average, completion rates are higher than South Africa’s, with completion rates of above 80% in the United Kingdom and Denmark.

Norway’s completion rate sits comparatively close to South Africa’s at 59%. The main reason the study gave for this rate being lower than others in Europe was Norway’s push for degrees to be completed in a short space of time. This matches up to South African data showing that completion at university generally takes longer than the typical 3 to 4 years allocated for an undergraduate degree.


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