/ 23 July 2008

Losing the edge?

Only 16% of undergraduate students at Wits University attained general degrees in 2004, falling short of the national benchmark of 25%, a Council on Higher Education (CHE) report leaked to the Mail & Guardian reveals.

Only 13% acquired professional first degrees against a national benchmark of 20%. The only category exceeding the national benchmark was honours students, with a 63% graduation rate against a benchmark of 60%.

These statistics appear in the final report of the CHE’s Higher Education Quality Committee (HEQC) audit of the institution conducted in 2006. The report was finalised earlier this year. The report shows that graduation rates by students in various qualifications indicate Wits was well below the benchmark for the national plan for higher education in 2004.

This means that if 100 students enter first year in a three-year degree, only 16 will graduate. Reasons for dropping out include financial problems by students, under-preparedness as the result of the school system and limited resources in bridging programmes to assist them.

Other findings are that Wits was losing highly qualified staff in two faculties at a rate faster than it could replace them and was falling short against national averages in the employment of African academic staff.

At least 20 universities have been quality audited by the HEQC.

The audits aim to bring about continuous quality development and improvement in higher education.

The report noted that Wits acknowledged facing a serious problem in student retention and graduation. In many degree courses academic exclusion of black students is more than 20% of enrolment.

Reasons for the low graduation rate included financial problems, the inadequacy of the matriculation examination as an indicator of preparedness for tertiary studies and limited university resources to assist these students.

”The report is largely in line with the university’s sense of its priority areas. Wits is in the process of finalising its response [which addresses all the questions that you have raised], which it will submit to the HEQC later this year,” said university spokesperson Shirona Patel.

”It is important to note that Wits has not waited for the report of the HEQC before commencing with quality improvement activities.

The report noted that Wits was losing highly qualified academics in two faculties: engineering and the built environment; and commerce, law and management. Wits has a target of 70% of academic staff holding PhD degrees. Currently this figure is approximately 45%.

The audit panel described the attraction and retention of staff with PhDs as a serious challenge as it is also related to the nature and effectiveness of the institution’s mechanisms for mentoring, supporting and promoting young researchers.

With regard to staff profile, from 1999 to 2003 the proportion of African academic staff at Wits grew from 10% to 17%, which was marginally lower than the average of 20% for universities in South Africa and significantly lower than the national target of 40%.

The Employment Equity Progress Report for June 2004 to March 2005 showed that this figure had dropped to about 15%, with the main loss being African women academics.

The proportion of female academic staff at Wits generally grew from 37% to 43% between 1999 and 2003. By March 2005 this figure had grown to 44,5%, which was higher than the national average of 40%, but still lower than the target of 50%.

Given that black students constitute 65% of enrolments, the proportion of black staff in top academic and management posts was ”worryingly small”, the report said.

Although Wits achieved a representation of females in senior manage­ment the panel encouraged it to develop mechanisms to ensure that senior female academics and managers were able to succeed within an enabling institutional environment.

While Wits has a sustained reputation in South Africa for excellence as a research university, its goal is to become a ”top 100” university in the world by 2020. But it had not yet met the national target of 1,25 publication units per academic staff member and this has implications for Wits’s objective of being a research intensive university.

As far as strategic priorities for the necessary intensification of research are concerned, the increase in the number of postdoctoral fellows across the research units and groups in the institution has been met with general support and approval by all researchers. The HEQC commended Wits on its postdoctoral fellows programme and the quality of its postgraduate activities.