In our view

Vital action needed to raise rate of graduation' 13 August 2013 - Business Report

This opinion piece by Inyathelo Executive Director Shelagh Gastrow was published in the Business Report on Tuesday 13 August 2013.

WE ALL know that investment in higher education pays off. It not only benefits the individual in the form of improved job prospects and income, but it also has significant benefits for our society as a whole by contributing to higher economic growth and employment rates, lower levels of corruption, as well as improvements in the general well-being of the population.

Why then are our universities battling to secure the money and resources they need to survive and thrive? And why do only 13 percent of our youth have access to university while more than a third of students drop out in the first year and less than half graduate?

The uneven and shaky pathways to and through our universities, especially for the majority of students who are unprepared for university study, should be of concern to us all. It is in our collective interests to ensure that our higher education institutions remain at the cutting edge, produce world-class graduates and undertake the essential research needed to advance our society

The misperception exists that universities are disconnected from the reality experienced by our citizens.

However, our universities are contributing to the development of South Africa by producing graduates and leaders who are globally competitive, and who strengthen our economy, business sector and government. In addition, our universities produce significant levels of outstanding research appropriate to the South African context, which informs our decisionmaking and development.

Essentially, our universities are the engine-room of intellectual thought and the drivers of innovation, development and knowledge production.Without these intellectual hubs, we would be much weaker as a community — and as a democracy

As pointed out by Carol Coletta, the former leader of CEOs for Cities, the single best predictor of a city's per capita income is the percentage of college graduates in its population.

The government is making all the right noises in this regard. Just last week, President Zuma reiterated that he wanted to increase the country's higher education enrolments to 25 percent by 2030.

But what is he doing about our dismal graduation rate? Recent research shows that only half of every year's student intake will graduate with a degree. Alarmingly a third of the annual intake drops out within the first year. Black student graduation rates remain substantially lower than those of their white counterparts.

In fact, less than 10 percent of African learners gain access to university and less than 5 percent succeed. The system is clearly failing the majority of our students from which our essential growth in advanced skills must come.

What are the key systemic obstacles that are within our power to address? What can we as citizens, business leaders, philanthropists and individuals do to help the government make the university system work?

These are the critical questions Inyathelo: The South African Institute for Advancement will be looking to answer at its leadership retreat in early November.

Vice-chancellors, representatives of private philanthropy and business leaders will explore how they can help sustain and strengthen our universities so that they can provide the graduates and research required to advance South Africa.

I believe this conference offers universities, business and philanthropy a unique opportunity to come together to explore how they can form mutually beneficial partnerships and to share issues relating to higher education that have an impact on their sectors.

We have to invest in developing talent and we have to invest in innovation — both outcomes of an educated population.

Shelagh Gastrow is the executive director of Inyathelo: The South African Institute for Advancement and a former director of fundraising at UCT.