Famous university dropouts like Bill Gates are often mentioned in the media, but the high dropout and failure rates at universities do damage the career prospects and motivation of many young people.  In addition there is a cost to the nation in wasted infrastructure and implementation costs.

What are the factors that affect this high dropout rate?  Is there a disjuncture between the teaching styles of university lecturers and the learning styles of students?  In the APPETD September report a member of the APPETD Research Committee Ali Perry provides some insight.  Please see his full article on the following link:


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This is a really interesting document and highlights a number of important issues. Two that are close to my heart are:

Firstly, most schools (around the world) do not prepare school leavers for the 'style' of learning that universities provide. Thinking at school is primarily convergent, i.e. looking for the ONE right answer, which is generally given in lessons. For example, my daughter was given a maths problem, the answer to which could be found through the use of an equation that had been taught to her. In the exam, she found the correct answer through another means (which was later proven to be mathematically sound), yet marks were deducted because she had not used the 'correct' equation. This style of teaching reduces the capacity to think divergently (seeking many possible correct answers) and this is a skill required in university, the workplace and life!

Secondly, parents (and I am one - with a daughter writing Matric in a few weeks) very often force their children into a degree, because they see it as crucial to success. Yes, a degree is a really good think to have, but if you don't want to be  an accountant, then a CA is pretty useless. My parents strongly encouraged me to go to university - I had no idea what I wanted to do, and failed 2nd year. 27 years later, I got an A for my Masters - the difference was, I was truly interested in what I was learning. I believe it's often better for a school graduate to work for a while before deciding on a career.

Schools and universities really need to work together to enable young people to cope with the rigours of post-school life.

Well said, Tim.  Yes, sadly, the limited perspectives formed by students at school are often due to a lack of inspiration on the part of the teachers.  Even within the constraints of a set syllabus, teachers who are really interested in shaping young minds should be able to create an environment conducive to the development of analytical and lateral thinking skills.  Apart from the mismatch between school and university teaching/learning styles, there is the frequent problem of school leavers receiving inadequate further study/career guidance.  I would have made different choices when I went to university if I had had focused and enthusiastic support in this area. 

Just finished lecturing Hons. students and here's an interesting observation that might add an insight to this discussion.

I lectured both full time and part time students separately - same lectures, same venue. The part time students (working and studying) were far more easily engaged, paid better attention and contributed more to the discussions than the full time students. Students seemed to still be in "school" mode - expecting to be taught, this is different to learning.

Is this observation an argument in favour of a "gap" year?

Thanks Tim, yes that is an interesting observation.

I think a gap year can be beneficial for some students, i.e. they mature and develop a better appreciation of how the world works.  It can also be a humbling experience.  However, a gap year can also result in a loss of study momentum with some students not being able to re-commit to a disciplined study programme.  I think if people plan a gap year with the definite intention of returning to do such-and-such a programme (as opposed to taking time off simply to 'find themselves' and, hopefully, figure out what course of study might interest them), they stand a better chance of success.

A deep systemic problem. Poorly trained teachers who are only there because it's a job rather than a calling, illiteracy from Grade 1 (see the National Assessment results for Grades 3 and 6); the OBE curriculum and teaching approach which allows children NOT to take responsibility for learning; a general lack of discipline at home exacerbated by "human rights" policies, which then feeds through into the school environment. If we don't get the problems solved at school level, the university throughput rates will remain dismal. We need to go back to basics - reading, writing and 'rithmetic for at least the first three years of schooling. Forget about the frilly bits like Life Orientation etc initially. Instil subject knowledge into the children; skills will almost automatically follow. 

Yes, simplifying the administration of education in this country but encouraging higher standards of teaching/learning would solve so many problems.  You're right, much of it does boil down to getting the 3 Rs right ... all the experimentation in teaching methodologies over the years has done irreparable harm.  I remember, years ago, Kader Asmal was being interviewed on Radio 702 when he became Minister of Education.  He was expounding on his plans to reinvigorate the (especially higher) education landscape when someone called in to say: "That's all very nice, Mr Minister, and your proposals sound very grand.  But wouldn't it be better if you focused your energies on ensuring that all children were in school,and had shoes on their feet and school books on their desks?" 

Having read the document, I have some questions and comments -

  • Why is private post-school education referred to as "the less preferred option" - from an APPETD researcher????
  • "School is very much about rules and conformity": my comment: and rightly so – no rules, no discipline, no learning. Lord of the Flies comes to mind. Teaching is about moulding children into good citizens - no rules and no discipline leads to crime on school campuses (drugs, rape, stabbings, theft) - the daily news. The problem is in this country that human rights has been set up as a god; but the concomitant responsibilities that go with those rights are ignored. There is a saying that "water finds the easiest route to the sea" - basically downwards - just saying.  A disciplined school life would help rather than hinder students at university, to my way of thinking. At least they would learn the value of learning. 

I'm sorry - I wasn't casting aspersions on the private education sector in general.  But to some students who have their sights set on university, going the private education route would be a 'less preferred option'.  I have been involved in private education for more than 25 years, and I know how valuable it can be in preparing young people for the world of work, and giving older people flexible options for changing careers. 


I think you can combine discipline and respect (in terms of values and behaviour at school) with liberated thinking which will enable students to cope better at university. The trick is for schools to enforce the necessary disciplines but also encourage students to think for themselves.  It's all a bit of a balancing act. 




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