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The right fit

| September 11, 2012 | 0 Comments

By Joanne Wood

Up to 30% of students in South Africa drop out during their first year of tertiary study, and fewer than 50% achieve an higher education qualification after five years.1

These high attrition rates result in obvious financial costs, but also have a non-financial impact. For the student, self-confidence is threatened and there is the sense that their time has been wasted. For the university, reputation and credibility are made vulnerable, and the morale of remaining students may be negatively affected.

According to André van Zyl, first-year experience coordinator at the University of Johannesburg, these findings highlight the importance of choosing a university and qualification that provides the best ‘fit’ for the student.2 Van Zyl states that “in order to reduce the high drop-out rate, it is imperative that scholars invest time and energy into researching where and what to study. Making an informed, well-researched decision will dramatically reduce the likelihood of dropout.”

The role of the life orientation teacher

Career choice forms a key component of the South African life orientation syllabi for schools designed by both the Independent Examination Board (IEB) and the Department of Basic Education (DBE). Consequently, the life orientation (LO) teacher plays a pivotal role in supporting this decisionmaking process.

Says Van Zyl: “The student has primary responsibility in the decision-making process, but LO teachers are a key link in the chain in terms of assisting scholars to make an informed choice, and preparing them for the rigour of higher education. This includes matters such as time management skills, assertiveness, and failing and trying again. Providing information about universities to students, equipping them with skills development opportunities and helping them to understand university expectations are three key areas of support that LO teachers should undertake. Most students who drop out of university without qualifications do so for preventable reasons and LO teachers can play important roles to avoid the avoidable.”

While it is useful to develop a library or collection of university brochures and application forms, this is not where the LO teacher’s role ends. According to Monique Nyback, careers advisor at Herschel Girls’ School in Cape Town: “We implement a variety of career development initiatives to ensure that we support the pupils in making important career decisions. Examples include an open-door policy for one-onone consultations, career evenings with guest speakers, university presentations and assistance with compiling applications and calculating admission point scores.”

The LO teacher’s job is to provide support and a structured sense of direction to the process. This can be achieved through the facilitation of up-to-date, career development-orientated tools, exercises and information. For example, an LO class could be structured around understanding admission point score (APS) calculations. In preparation for the lesson, groups of scholars must research the APS system of a university of their choice and present their findings to the class.

The decision-making process

Deciding where to study after school is overwhelming for many people, due to the volume and complexity of available information regarding universities. Each institution provides a specific set of qualifications and unique entry criteria, meaning that scholars need to invest time and effort into gaining a concrete understanding of their options. For this reason, it is vital not to leave important career-related decisions until the end of Grade 12, or alternatively until the application deadlines draw near. Fundamental career development discussions should start as early as Grade 9, when students must choose certain subjects to study in the last three years of high school. From this time, pupils should also be developing employability skills, such as curriculum vitae compilation and interview skills.

Jurgen Kietzmann, former head of the Rhodes University Career Centre in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape, uses a simple yet effective analogy to explain the process of choosing a higher education institution: “Imagine putting together a 5 000-piece puzzle. The exercise is challenging and it can be confusing to know where and how to start. Just like the process of deciding what to study, the key here is to start. Through grouping colours, finding corner and frame pieces, patterns start to emerge and the pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place.

“Nobody in their right mind would attempt to complete a 5 000-piece puzzle in 30 minutes. Yet so many matriculants wait until the last minute to make a decision regarding where and what to study. My advice, therefore, is to start early, research intensely and leave no piece of the puzzle unturned before trying to put it all together.”

Not knowing how to start selecting a university is tied to the rather overwhelming feeling that school-leavers are choosing a career to last a lifetime. Ingrid van der Merwe, a senior career advisor at the University of Cape Town, provides some reprieve: “Matriculants often express fears about choosing the wrong career. The anxiety can be reduced if they understand that one is not choosing a career for life in matric, but rather assembling a broad skills set that will allow one to pursue a number of future careers. If you do have a specific career in mind, research it well, as many people have inaccurate and romanticised ideas about what certain jobs entail, and disappointment can lead to dropout or failure.”

Tertiary institutions in South Africa: a brief orientation

Universities in South Africa are separated into three categories: traditional universities, universities of technology and comprehensive universities. The first group – including Rhodes University, the University of Cape Town (UCT) and the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS) – tends to offer more traditional, theoretically orientated degrees or diplomas, such as the Bachelor of Commerce and the Bachelor of Arts.

Universities of technology were formerly known as technikons and provide more practical, vocation-orientated qualifications. Examples of these institutions include the Durban University of Technology and the Tshwane University of Technology. Finally, comprehensive universities, such as the University of Johannesburg and the University of South Africa (Unisa) provide a combination of the two.3

It is also well worth noting the plethora of alternatives for scholars to whom university does not appeal, or for whom the entry criteria prove too stringent. Further education and training colleges (FETs), private institutions, agricultural colleges, hotel schools and schools of theology provide viable alternatives.4

Acceptance criteria

South Africa experiences a far greater demand for university places than the available supply.5 Kietzmann argues that “there are simply not sufficient places in universities to accommodate everyone, and academic performance has to be the main criteria when entering into university”. Each South African university stipulates a rigorous set of predominantly academic criteria that a scholar must meet in order to be accepted. This not only applies to the university as a whole, but also to the different faculties and qualifications, which may have additional criteria. To use UCT as an example, applicants wanting to study a bachelor’s degree are required to write the National Benchmark Tests (NBTs)6 and must have achieved a required level of proficiency in English. In calculating their APS, scholars need to total the “sum of six subjects, excluding life orientation, but including English and any required subject(s) for the relevant programme”.7

These are not the only required details, and scholars and their teachers and parents should consult university-specific brochures, websites and relevant personnel.

Finding the right fit

Once scholars grasp the tertiary options available and whether or not they meet the acceptance criteria, it is important that they take their research a step further. Evidence shows that mere acceptance is not sufficient grounds for finding the optimal fit between the individual and the university and the qualification.8 “Very often pupils chose a particular institution because their friends or siblings are enrolled, and not necessarily because it is the right fit for them,” says Nyback.

Successful social and academic integration into university is based on various factors, including “academic preparedness, campus climate, commitment to educational goals and institution… and financial aid”.9 Ideally, school pupils should visit various universities and even sit in on lectures, if possible, to get a feel for the campus atmosphere.

It is worth noting also that parents cannot make the decision about where to study after school for their children. It is crucial that scholars, with the support of their parents and LO teachers, are the ultimate decision makers, in order to ensure their buy-in.


1. Scott, I., Yeld, N. and Hendry, J. (2007) A Case for Improving Teaching and Learning in South African Higher Education. Council on Higher Education. Higher Education Monitor No. 6. Centre for Higher Education Development: UCT.

2. Van Zyl, A. (2012) ‘Taking the step up: moving from school to university. The perspective from the other side of the fence.’ Slides as part of IEB Subject Conference on 4 February 2012, University of Johannesburg.

3. Van der Merwe, I. and Bloch, L. (2011) ‘Looking forward: a guide to studying further’. Careers Service: UCT.

4. Higher Education South Africa (2012) ‘SA universities’. Available at: See also the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) website:

5. Baldauf, S. (2012) ‘Stampede at university highlights South Africa’s education shortage’. Available at: stampede-university-highlights-south-africas-education-shortage.

6. National Benchmark Tests (2012). Available at:

7. See, for example,

8. Tinto, V. (1975) ‘Dropout from higher education: a theoretical synthesis of recent research’. Review of Educational Research, Vol. 45, No. 1, pp. 89–125. See also Scott Swail, W. ‘The art of student retention: A handbook for practitioners and administrators’. Available at:

9. McCubbin, I (2003) ‘An examination of criticisms made of Tinto’s 1975 Student Integration Model of Attrition’. Available at:

Category: Spring 2012

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