And only 30% obtain their qualifications within five years of enrolling as first-year students.
Half the country's undergraduate students drop out without completing their degrees and diplomas, Education Minister Naledi Pandor has told Parliament. And only 30% obtain their qualifications within five years of enrolling as first-year students.
It is not just historically black universities that are experiencing this alarming trend — 33% of undergraduates drop out of Wits University, and 31% go missing at Rhodes. We are "not proud of the progress of all students admitted", said Wits University regisÂÂtrar Derek Swemmer.
Inadequate academic preparation and financial difficulties are the two key reasons advanced for the high dropout rate.
The figures are drawn from a department of education "cohort study" of students who first entered undergraduate programmes in 2000, seen as the most reliable to date. The student cohort was tracked at each tertiary institution for five years, till end-2004 (see table).
Pandor recently released the Âfigures in a written answer to a question in Parliament.
Acting chief director Ian Bunting emphasised that the dropout figures include students who changed tertiary institutions in the survey period. He said about 10% of the 2000 university cohort and 11% of the technikon students had done so.
The data also presents figures for Unisa and Technikon SA separately, on the assumption that "the average time for completion for students of these two [distance] institutions would be longer than the assumed average (five years) of the predominantly contact institutions".
However, even taking account of the movement of students between institutions, it is clear that close to 50% of undergraduates dropped out. If Unisa and Technikon SA are excluded, about one in three university students and one in two technikon students dropped out.
Mandla Seopela, president of the South African Students Congress, said most dropouts occurred for financial reasons. Even those with funding from the stateâ€™s National Student Financial Aid Scheme sometimes battled to make ends meet.
"Students who canâ€™t afford food will clearly not cope with the academic environment," Seopela said.
"The solution is free education, though dependent on a studentâ€™s academic success. The government can afford this. Weâ€™ve engaged with them, but they say they donâ€™t have the money. Thatâ€™s a myth."
Universities highlight the poor preparation of students. Said University of the Free State vice-rector Magda Fourie: "Inflated school results mean even school-leavers with good results are increasingly under-prepared for higher education."
Selection also poses problems, observed Rhodes University registrar Stephen Fourie. "School-Âleaving results are reliable indicators of potential success at university at the top end of the scale, but become less reliable lower down."
Explaining Witsâ€™s dropout rate, Swemmer said some students "take an ill-advised decision to enter into higher education without necessarily having the appropriate aptitude". Others had not secured funding or accommodation.
HIV/Aids also played a part, said Tshwane University of Technology spokesperson Willa de Ruyter, pointing to the pressure on students who are in charge of families where both parents have died. And "some students themselves either become too ill to continue their studies or the infection becomes fatal", commented Karuna Krishanlal-Gopal, spokesperson for Walter Sisulu University.
Gessler Nkondo, spokesperson of the Association for Black Empowerment in Higher Education, pointed out that for many black students, "English is not even a second language but a foreign language. Unless we look at modes of delivery in higher education, it wonâ€™t matter how many black students get into, say, the University of Cape Town."
Nkondo said his association had joined the Human Sciences Research Council earlier this year in probing the causes of high failure and dropout rates among black students.
Bunting said the education Âdepartment is still working on an equivalent study of the 2001 student cohort up to and including 2005. Although not complete, the picture emerging is no different from the 2000 cohort study.
Cohort studies have become possible only recently, because they require data over a five-year period and because data before 1999 was inadequate. In that year, the departmentâ€™s new Hemis (higher education management information system) began operating, making it possible to launch the 2000 cohort study the year after.
"We also need a separate study of those [10% to 11%] who move from one institution to another to assess their success rates," Bunting said. "And a further breakdown by Âprogramme of study is necessary."
The attrition rate