Enterprising School Leavers

Enterprising School Leavers
Learning Brief

South African Education and Environment Project (SAEP)

Programmatic strategies for supporting tertiary students in lean times

Category: Enterprising School Leavers | Prevent school drop-out | 4 April, 2014 - 10:27



Between 2005 and 2010, 58% of South African tertiary students left school without graduating. South African Education and Environment Project’s (SAEP) Tertiary Support Programme helps tertiary students from disadvantaged backgrounds to successfully complete their degrees and to thrive academically, socially and emotionally in higher education institutions.



In the first half of 2013, the programme supported 45 students, all alumni of SAEP’s post-matric bridging year programme. In mid-July, it extended its services to another 18 students who had graduated from SAEP’s high school tutoring programme. The programme is now supporting 63 students, and could be supporting 85 to 95 students or more in 2014.

This raises the urgent question of how to scale-up the operations in an appropriate and effective manner? In the context of limited resources and increasing numbers of beneficiaries, how can SAEP target its resources where they are most needed?



In early 2013, in the face of financial constraints, the SEAP’s Tertiary Support Programme reduced financial and material support to students. Instead, we aimed to lean more heavily on existing support structures and resources provided by other organisations, such as tuition funding made available through NSFAS loans, or on-campus student support services provided for free to all students. Specifically, we:

  • Stopped funding accommodation. In 2011 and 2012, SAEP supported 9-10 students to live in private residence near campus. However, during that two-year period, we did not see students living in residence performing significantly better than their peers living at home.  In 2013, we instead supported students to seek NSFAS housing loans and university residence or private accommodation near campus. With letters of support from SAEP, 11 students were able to secure housing on campus – up from 6 students who secured housing last year. However, many locally based students were unable to secure place in the residence halls because university housing policies give priority to students from outside Cape Town, which neglects the needs of those locals whose living situations are detrimental to their studies.
  • Reduced stipend levels from R1500 to R800 per month for the 31 students receiving stipends. Feedback from students indicates that while they have struggled to get by with R800, and experienced more stress when living so close to the wire financially. With the help of external researchers we are reviewing our stipend levels at the moment (see below).
  • Developed new referral systems with on-campus resources, including CPUT’s financial aid and admissions offices and UWC’s Centre for Student Support Services. These relationships are still new, but we are excited about these developments and will have a better sense of how this collaboration can support students by the end of the next reporting period.



While we believe these shifts by and large show positive results, and moreover foster self-reliance and independence as they require students to learn to navigate university systems, they also highlight systemic blockages and policy issues that act as barriers to even the most entrepreneurial students. These include:

  • Admissions policies and timelines. Most of the students SAEP supports receive their letters of acceptance late from tertiary institutions. This year, some acceptance letters arrived a week or more after classes had already started. In these cases, students miss orientation, and struggle to catch up academically and settle in socially after their peers have already started classes. Additionally, tertiary institutions have different timelines for admissions. Students may end up taking the first offer they receive even if it is their last choice, because they fear they will not receive another offer. Sometimes this means students enrol in a course that is not a great fit for them, which may lead to lower motivation and performance.
  • Late granting and payment of NSFAS loans. The National Student Financial Aid Scheme is notoriously inept at granting and processing loan payments. Although students apply for loans the October before they start their studies, sometimes NSFAS does not respond until the second term of the following year, placing a significant financial burden on families or preventing students from enrolling entirely. Even once NSFAS loans have been granted, they are often paid late, which can prevent students from re-enrolling or accessing their results at the end of a term. Students who are motivated to seek additional funding are ineligible to apply for university or private bursaries because they cannot show that they passed all of their classes. In other cases, NSFAS approves a student loan that is supposed to cover a student’s registration fee, but the funds arrive late, registration is delayed and students miss orientation and classes. Under these circumstances, students who already come from disadvantaged backgrounds are prone to fall farther behind.
  • Housing: At Western Cape tertiary institutions, where most of our students are enrolled, preference for accommodation is given to students who reside outside of Cape Town. Almost all of SAEP’s students live in unsafe and disruptive environments and would benefit from accommodation on or near campus, but only 11 secured places in a residence near campus. While is this is more than in past years, many students are still living in home environments that make it challenging to thrive in university.



Over the next few months, two UCT research students will be conducting an external evaluation of the programme, focusing on the question: “In the context of limited resources and increasing numbers of students, how can SAEP best target its resources to support tertiary students to succeed?” They will be mapping different types of support provided between January 2011 and July 2013 against student performance and emotional well-being, as measured by student reports, surveys, social work case studies, and feedback from programme staff and mentors. This will help us understand where we can support students through continuing to build networks and referral systems, and where our support is most needed to fill the gaps in the existing landscape of higher education. We look forward to sharing the results with other organisations working to combat high dropout rates and help tertiary students succeed.



Logo: South African Education and Environment Project (SAEP)

B-14 Kotzee Road Mowbray Cape Town

 021 447 3610


In Short

SEAP discusses how it continues to support 45 tertiary students, despite facing increasing financial and resource constraints. This has involved trimming direct financial aid to students and leaning more heavily on existing support structures and resources provided by other organisations. This learning brief points out the benefits and limits of these approaches.

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