Council moots new flexi-degree

2013-08-25 10:01

South African university students could soon have the option of completing their undergraduate degrees at a different pace from their classmates.

That’s if a key recommendation of a report by the Council on Higher Education (CHE), which examined South Africa’s undergraduate degree structure, is adopted.

The report makes for sobering reading, showing that only 25% of students in “contact institutions” – rather than Unisa – graduate in the required time.

Only 35% of the total intake, and 48% of contact students, graduate within five years.

These figures are heavily skewed along racial lines: on average, white completion rates are 50% higher than those of black African students.

The CHE task team called for “decisive intervention”, and recommended that the formal time for all current three-year degrees and diplomas, as well as current four-year professional bachelor’s degrees, should be increased by one year.

It then calls for flexibility: “The main mechanism for this will be that students who can demonstrate the necessary knowledge and skills, through meeting rigorous and transparent criteria, can be granted exemption for some or all of the new first-level courses.”

Professor Ian Scott, the director of the University of Cape Town’s academic development programme who was the research coordinator and developer of the CHE report, said there was a common belief that adding a year to the three-year bachelor’s degree would increase the cost to universities by a third.

But he said extensive financial projections showed this was not the case.

Scott said the proposed model, based on “modest assumptions” and current intake numbers, would result in 28% more graduates for a 16% increase in costs.

This would result in an overall reduction in costs per graduate.

This was because students currently taking five or six years to complete their degrees could graduate in four years.

The large numbers of students currently failing to graduate – and thereby losing their entire investment in higher education and saddling the university with bad debt – would have a better chance of obtaining their degrees if the new plan was passed, he explained.

Larry Pokpas, an institutional planner at the University of the Western Cape, said a number of students were currently doing a three-year degree over four years on an “informal basis, funded in an ad hoc way” by the department of higher education.

Students interviewed at the University of Cape Town welcomed the proposal – with some caution.

Third-year B.Comm student Sibusiso Makhathini said the four-year degree proposal should not be confused with perceptions of race.

“I don’t think it has a lot to do with race. The race stats make it seem like a bigger issue.

“If you need an extra year, this means you can take an extra year,” he said.

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