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24 March 2010

Study on student retention, graduation and beyond

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)
Press Release

The published study, Student Retention and Graduate Destination: Higher education and labour market access and success (Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2009) was launched today at a seminar hosted by Dr Vijay Reddy, Executive Director of the Education, Science and Skills Development research programme of the Human Sciences Research Council. To mark the occasion, Professor Haroon Bhorat and Ms Natasha Mayet, of the Development Policy Research Unit, University of Cape Town, presented the key findings of one of the chapters of the monograph on student graduation, labour market destinations and employment earnings.

The Student Retention and Graduate Destination study

The monograph presents findings arising out of the Student Retention and Graduate Destination study, conceived in response to multiple concerns that South Africa’s higher education (HE) throughput rates are too low. The study sought to provide a clearer understanding of the factors shaping the pathways of students into, through and out of HE institutions and into the labour market.

Seven institutions were included in the study: the University of Fort Hare; the University of the Western Cape (UWC); Peninsula Technikon; Stellenbosch University (SU); the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits); the University of the North; and Pretoria Technikon.

The study investigated in two ways the factors that influence student pathways. The first involved a survey tracking a cohort of students into the labour market, asking them to retrace their learning and career trajectories from the moment of their school subject choices to their present destinations. The second involved case study interviews with senior management of the seven HE institutions. The students traced were of two kinds: those who graduated with a general or professional bachelor’s degree in 2002; and those who left the HE system in 2002 without achieving a qualification.

Key findings presented in the monograph

In Chapter 1, Michael Cosser argues that the school-to-HE transition is not a linear process, but that the various disjunctions between aspiration and actualization reveal an inherent volatility in the youth-to-adulthood transition as young people move from one phase of school to the next and from school into and through the HE system. The key reason for the failure to realise ambition is the strong correlation between socio-economic status (SES) and choice in the South African context – the higher the SES of students, the greater their ability to exercise choice (of subjects at school, of HE institution, and of HE study field) and map out their career trajectories and destinies. Financial constraints and poor academic performance, in a mutually reinforcing way, preclude large percentages of students from studying at their institutions of first choice: they cannot do so because they cannot meet the admission requirements; and if they could, they would not be able to afford the fees.

In Chapter 2, Moeketsi Letseka, Mignonne Breier and Mariette Visser examine poor students’ struggles for access and success in the seven institutions. Tracing the poverty levels of students who drop out back to the apartheid policies of the previous regime, they show the effects of poverty as going beyond access to such basic needs as food, shelter and clothing to encompass perceptions of helplessness, vulnerability, voicelessness, social exclusion, and abandonment by the authorities. Since impecuniousness manifests itself as the primary cause of student attrition, the authors investigate the capacity of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme to support – and ultimately to retain – financially needy but academically capable students within the higher education system.

In Chapter 3, Gill Scott and Moeketsi Letseka explore the implications of transformation and the effects of institutional culture on student drop-out at Wits. They show that while student enrollment patterns at the institution have been steadily changing since the late 1980s, the same cannot be said of the academic staff complement, which remains predominantly white. The perceived over-emphasis of lecturing staff on content and theoretical knowledge at the expense of study skills invokes feelings of exclusion among students from previously disadvantaged communities and promotes a sense that the academic culture in the institution is inherently alienating.

In Chapter 4, Mignonne Breier confirms that the vicious cycle of financial disadvantage and academic under-performance which originated under apartheid continues to hold sway at UWC. She notes the abject poverty – manifested in barely concealed physical hunger – which is the daily lot of a sizeable number of students at the institution, linking it to the low SES of respondents to the Student Retention and Graduate Destination surveys conducted earlier. Poverty emerges as the primary reason for student drop-out; and precisely for this reason, many students do not so much drop out as ‘stop out’ in order to earn the money needed to finance their continued studies at the institution.

In Chapter 5, Trish Gibbon tackles the uncomfortable tension between the success for which SU has increasingly become known – success based largely on the relative advantage of the predominantly white student body to whose SES Breier drew attention in her chapter – and the conspicuous lack of diversity which has become the institution’s nemesis. Against the provocative backdrop of wrangles around language policy, Gibbon explores the success-diversity tension, concluding that any compromise in the student demographic that saw meaningful increases in the enrolment of coloured students (black African students would be unlikely to want to study at SU because of the institution’s language policy) would compromise the high academic standards of the university and lead to reduced financial stability.

In Chapter 6, Percy Moleke provides a broad analysis of the performance of the South African graduate labour market. Then, drawing on the employment and unemployment experiences of graduates in the Student Retention and Graduate Destination study, she shows that relatively high levels of unemployment are found among black African graduates, whose absorption into the labour market occurs at a much slower pace than does that of graduates of other race groups – especially whites.

In Chapter 7, Haroon Bhorat, Natasha Mayet and Mariette Visser provide an empirical overview of the Student Retention and Graduate Destination study data-set, going on to show, in relation to graduation, employment, and earnings, the persistence of subtle forms of inequality and exclusion in South Africa’s higher education and labour market. Race, their analysis shows, continues to determine whether students graduate and find jobs, and remains the strongest factor shaping student outcomes even when institution type and field of study are factored out of the picture. But once individuals are actually employed, race is no longer significant. Finally, the authors show that while socio-economic variables are important in determining graduation and success in the labour market, they are not crucial. Household income and attending a rural school were found to have a significant impact on the probability of graduation, but other variables such as parental education were insignificant. Individual rather than household variables were in fact more important in determining whether students found jobs and how much they earned.

In the Afterword, Michael Cosser provides a brief environmental scan of the higher education landscape mid-2009, showing how the seven chapters of the monograph contribute to current debates and ministerial policy initiatives underway in the higher education sector.


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