UCT vice-chancellor: An incomplete degree should not end dreams of a career

Across South Africa, many university students are dropping out of their study programmes. Photo: PeopleImages/Getty
Across South Africa, many university students are dropping out of their study programmes. Photo: PeopleImages/Getty


A 2019 study revealed that 78% of university students could not complete their three-year degrees in the allotted time. In fact, over half had not completed their degrees even after six years.

Across South Africa, many university students are dropping out of their study programmes – and not necessarily for academic reasons.

A large number of capable students simply cannot afford to continue paying the high costs of tuition, books and fees. While they have the academic ability to complete a degree and enter the job market, they are unable to do so. As a result, university drop-out rates are 47%.

Among graduates who do complete a higher education programme, 85% are employed.

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This is a clear indication of the value of tertiary education in South Africa – although some successful university graduates are battling to find an entry-level job that will help them climb up a career ladder. General unemployment statistics sit at 34%, while the percentage of youth who are not employed or participating in a programme of education or training is around 60%.

Meanwhile, corporate South Africa has vacancies in digital-based careers but not enough eligible people to apply for these positions.

The country is also at risk of its talented young people emigrating to other countries to seek employment.

There is an urgent need to fill the skills gap if the country is going to keep up with the fourth industrial revolution.

The University of Cape Town (UCT) has a relatively low drop-out rate compared to other South African institutions, at about 10%. But we are not happy with this statistic. 

It means that every year, roughly 2 000 students experience the heartbreaking disruption in their education, largely due to circumstances outside of their control.

UCT, in partnership with digital education company Umuzi, is offering a way for these students to develop their skills, knowledge and networks to increase their likelihood of finding work or developing entrepreneur opportunities.

After the pilot programme, we intend to expand the digital bootcamp to accommodate as many UCT students as possible who experienced interrupted studies, and we hope to replicate this model in other universities across South Africa and the continent. Expanding this opportunity depends on the availability of sponsorship.

We are motivated by our awareness of the massive, untapped talent available in South Africa’s young people. If a simple lack of training is all that stands between these talented future leaders and a job, then we need to create a way to address that.

The pilot UCT Digital Bootcamp, which began on June 22, will offer sponsored training to eligible students whose studies were interrupted or our graduates who have been unable to find a job since graduating three or more years ago. No previous experience or skills are required to apply for this pilot programme.

An important part of UCT’s Vision 2030 is to help South Africans take their rightful place in the global digital economy, not just by filling digital jobs but also by bringing an African perspective to help steer the growth of the digital economy across our continent.

This is part of our institutional mission to unleash human potential to create a fair and just society.

We are seeing the growing need for digital skills in more and more professional fields, including law, social services, media communication and other “non-scientific” sectors.

At UCT, we encourage students to consider developing information technology skills while pursuing their chosen degrees because we want our graduates to be ready to work within the fourth industrial revolution and influence its impact in South Africa.

We have the same desire for students who experienced interrupted studies and graduates. The digital bootcamp pilot programme offers a way for 100 young people to move in a direction that may be different from their original career goals but will provide the skills for them to possibly reach those goals on a different path.

I have learnt from my own career that life brings many turns, bumps and changes along the way.

There is no single “correct” path and the opportunities to learn and grow from a different path are endless. The bootcamp is designed to provide such opportunity.

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The UCT and Umuzi are not doing this alone. We have generous sponsorships from international corporates eager to employ South Africans in the offices they are launching in the country.

We also encourage participants to think beyond corporate employment to consider ways that they can shape new services and businesses around the skills they will learn.

We don’t want to duplicate what the rest of the world is doing in the fourth industrial revolution.

Instead, we want to give South Africans the skills to lead how the fourth industrial revolution will help Africa grow in economic strength and global influence.

The bootcamp offers a choice of courses that will require students’ full-time participation for up to three months or part-time for up to six months.

Training will be online, so participants can join from different locations.

The three main pathways are digital tech, comprising data analytics, IT support, user experience design and user interface design, and project management, media marketing pathways, comprising social media marketing and marketing analytics, and cloud pathways, which provide a cloud practitioner certificate.

Training is sponsored by international leaders in digital technology and information systems Amazon, Google and Meta (previously Facebook).

While the pilot programme is already under way, we are eager to hear from students who experienced interrupted studies and unemployed graduates across South Africa who would like to participate in future bootcamps.

We continue to seek sponsors to help expand the programme to all eligible potential digital professionals. Applicants can find out more by visiting

This is a great opportunity for young people who have demonstrated their academic talent and want to take it to their future workplace. At this point, it is only a seed, but seeds have tremendous potential to grow.

Phakeng is vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Cape Town.


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