A different route to reducing university drop-out rates

A 3rd year chemical engineering student from the University of Cape Town in a vacation “boot camp” to help with supplementary exam preparation. Jennifer Case

South Africa is in the grip of a skills shortage. Among the top ten skills needed to boost its lacklustre economic growth are civil, mechanical, industrial and chemical engineers.

But of the just more than 3000 students the Department of Higher Education and Training estimated would sign up to do an engineering degree in South Africa this year, fewer than half will graduate after five years.

South Africa’s isn’t alone in struggling to get engineering students from enrolment to graduation. In the US only about 50% of engineering students complete their degrees, according to research published in the Journal of Engineering Education. In Australia the figure isn’t much higher.

But South Africa faces a particularly difficult post-apartheid challenge. It needs to increase the number of black university graduates across all disciplines as a form of intellectual and economic redress. Its skilled workforce must reflect the demographics of a country whose population is around 90% black.

The problem is exacerbated by South Africa’s troubled public school system, which battles to produce students equipped for pursuing tough degrees like engineering at university level. Even if students do make it into an engineering degree, they are extremely likely to drop out before completing their studies.

Despite the problem being widespread and seemingly intractable, various attempts continue to be made to overcome it. One of the earliest was started in the chemical engineering department at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in the mid-1980s. The department’s classes were largely white and male and the graduation rates were low. A few black students were enrolled but their success rates were poorer than those of their white peers.

UCT approached its industry partners for a frank discussion. They set out to find a way to teach engineering students from disadvantaged backgrounds effectively.

A quarter-century of change

Nearly 30 years later, UCT engineering undergraduate enrolment rates have risen and white students make up less than 40% of the South African students in the programme. By 2011, the programme posted an overall graduation rate of nearly 70%, with dramatically improved rates for black students.

A group of higher education researchers and I recently worked with data to build a case study of how change can happen in a university department. One of our key questions was:

What makes educational change possible?

We wanted to take a long-term view because so much of our present discourse on social shortcomings – particularly in education – fails to do so.

Exploring academic development in the mainstream

During the 1980s, driven by the needs of an increasingly diverse student body, South African universities began to develop a new way of thinking about academic development.

Since then, much work has focused on foundation programmes that offer students a different route of access to the regular “mainstream” programmes. A policy statement released by the South African government in 2005 suggested that:

The introduction of funding for foundation programmes, as well as the provision of development funds for teaching should contribute [to enhancing the quality of throughput and graduation rates] … In this regard, it is important to ensure that attention is paid to developing foundation programmes in scarce skills areas.

But what happens after the foundation programme?

The experience of UCT’s chemical engineering department over 25 years is an interesting example of what can be termed “academic development in the mainstream”. This is exciting because it opens the door to universities exploring different routes to greater inclusivity, and explores a space that traditional foundation programmes have not occupied before.

Here is how it was done.

First, an independent Advisory Board was established for the chemical engineering department. Its members were recruited from key positions in South African industries – a sign that the department was building closer links with business and was receptive to its views.

From its side, industry did not buy any arguments that low success rates were inescapable in engineering. The board also rejected the idea of a separate academic programme for black students and urged the engineering department to prioritise the social integration of its student body. It was convinced that an energetic department with a strong academic base should be able to build an undergraduate programme that could make help students from a broad range of social backgrounds succeed.

A few years later, a large industry donation led to the creation of an academic post in the department to focus on academic development. I have held this post since 1996.

The department also made changes to its curriculum and introduced new approaches to teaching. They established a first-year engineering course, improved industry exposure at the junior levels and developed better systems for advising undergraduate students.

Chemical engineering students work together on an assignment. Jenni Case

Lessons from the journey

These are three key lessons from the chemical engineering department’s metamorphosis.

First, rather than making pejorative statements about its students, the department took a positive approach and emphasised success even when pass rates in courses might have suggested otherwise. I found this quite striking when examining 25 years of departmental deliberations.

Second, the department did not shy away from critical feedback. It did ongoing research and then shared the findings, even when the results reflected poorly on it. For example, a key study showed how good intentions in building a new design course were not being carried through to the level of assessment and feedback.

Third, industry’s demands were a significant spur to change.

On some scores, these changes could be considered modest because they were driven in collaboration with industry, and by a department needing particular outcomes. However, given the persistent challenges in the South African university landscape, the experience of UCT’s chemical engineering department deserves attention.