Enterprising School Leavers

Enterprising School Leavers
Learning Brief

Studie Trust

Fighting poverty by connecting young people to study opportunities

Category: Enterprising School Leavers | Facilitate access to educational opportunities | 22 March, 2013 - 02:34


Studietrust connects young people with academic potential to study opportunities as a strategy in the struggle against poverty. Our wider aim is to strengthen a constitutional democracy in South Africa by ensuring that more able and willing young citizens gain access to education and acquire the mostly higher level skills needed for economic growth and meaningful employment.

In the course of our 38 years experience in this field we have come to understand the challenges faced by poor young people en route to tertiary access. In 2012 we collaborated with our principal partner the Sasol Inzalo Foundation in preparing a paper for the Carnegie 3 conference in Cape Town on supporting access for disadvantaged students (see Vosloo, M, Hofmeyr, M & Letlape M 2012). This learning brief is a summary of that paper in which we used the capabilities approach coupled with the asset accumulation approach to poverty alleviation.

Theoretical background

Capabilities according to Sen are the capacities people must have that enable them to function. Capabilities are distinguished from commodities and characteristics. A bicycle is a commodity and its characteristic is transportation. The capability it offers is the ability to move about. For Sen poverty is capability deprivation and its overcoming would require increased entitlement (Spicker, Leguizamón & Gordon 2006: 26-27). Entitlement is something positive for Sen – the exercise of the right to use resources. Poverty is not so much caused by the lack of resources but by the inability to use the available resources (Spicker, Leguizamón & Gordon 2006: 67). This view favours the notion of empowerment as strategy against poverty. Empowerment entails the enhancement of the abilities and capabilities of those who were lacking in power. Sen sees empowerment as the end effect or result of development. Development leads to increasing the entitlements and capabilities of poor people. Educational attainment forms an important indicator used in the calculation of the Human Development Index (HDI). It is measured by the level of adult literacy (counting two-thirds of the total) added to a combination of primary, secondary and tertiary enrolment ratios. The other indicators are life-expectancy and standard of living.

Another theoretical approach that developed the capabilities approach further is called the asset accumulation approach. The originator of this approach, Caroline Moser, stressed that the inventive solutions of the poor themselves play a crucial part in poverty reduction. The “assets” poor people must accumulate and control in order to become less vulnerable in the face of “shocks” include labour, human capital, housing, land, infrastructure, etc. According to Moser the process by which assets held by individuals and households are transformed into accumulated capital does not occur in a vacuum. Government policy, political institutions and NGOs play important roles in determining how easily households can accumulate assets. The accumulation of one asset often results in the accumulation of others, while the insecurity in one asset can also affect the others (Moser 2007:92).

Institutions also could either undermine or enhance asset accumulation. Laws, norms, and regulatory and legal frameworks all count as institutions. These include the linkages between education and employment. Asset accumulation is affected by opportunities for and constraints of individual and collective agency. The opportunities and constraints relate to the broader political and economic context and a particular strategy of asset accumulation followed is defined as the way in which particular “endowments” are transformed into accumulated assets by individual and collective agency (Moser 2007:94).

First generation asset accumulation (improved basic services, health and education) could be frustrated, for instance if higher education levels (increased human capital) do not lead to employment and result in negative outcomes. Second generation asset accumulation is therefore designed to strengthen accumulated assets, ensure their further consolidation and prevent erosion (Moser 2007:95).

Educational human capital can be identified as “promotional assets” that actively provide opportunities to move out of poverty in a sustainable way. It presupposes physical capital (land, housing, health, etc.) that can be considered “protective” or “preventative”. 

The asset accumulation approach is also referred to as the asset vulnerability approach. “Vulnerability,” according to Moser, is insecurity in the well-being of individuals, households and communities. Resilience and responsiveness to risk are related to assets and control over them. Moser’s research shows that the poor themselves are managing a portfolio of complex assets. Management of assets affects vulnerability in the household (Spicker, Leguizamón & Gordon 2006:12). Attaining a degree in engineering or the natural sciences would rate as a process of asset accumulation that is believed to have the power of significantly improve the circumstances of individuals and households.

The individual benefit of having a degree is the increased likelihood of finding employment that will guarantee a higher earning power, an increased robustness and ability to withstand shocks like loss or reduction of income in economic downturns, and improved health behaviours and health. The broader benefits to the economy entail increased human capital, leading to higher total factor productivity, better service delivery (e. g. a professional public service), a stronger national innovation system that will lead to economic growth and - eventually - increased wealth for all.

Our purpose, strategy and expected outcomes

The purpose of the Studietrust Access Bursary Programme is to contribute to poverty alleviation and economic development by providing access to higher and further education to young people with potential and determination who do not have the means. The expected outcome is that they will gain the high level skills needed by the economy and find gainful employment - to empower them to accumulate the assets that will make their siblings and families less vulnerable and more resilient in the face of life's challenges.

Studietrust over the years became quite adapt at selecting young people with potential for its bursary programme and assist them to register at FETCs and universities, administering their bursaries and providing an elementary support programme aimed at preventing drop-out and achieving a positive throughput rate. We have traditionally not ventured into addressing the second gap - that between studying and entering the world of work. Although we adopted the latter as part of our core business, we have only so far managed to run pilot programmes in this regard. 

Our implementation to date

From 1995 to 2009 the programme developed computerised systems for selection and administration of bursaries and study loans, and a student mentoring and support programme depending on an excellent bursary administration service to bursars and individual attention to each bursar. We recently received a call from a person who received a school bursary from Studietrust in the 1980s. He went on to postgraduate studies in Canada, the USA (Harvard) and Germany and told us that it was Studietrust that launched him on this career of academic achievement through the personal interest that we took during his school days. The knowledge that we believed in him was a motivating factor throughout.

After 2008 it became clear that prospective students at tertiary level were even less prepared for the demands of higher education than before. We responded to the challenge of our bursars' struggles by intensifying our mentor and support programme. We were still paid the same administration contribution by donors - a percentage of the total amount spent on bursaries - so we had to keep it sustainable. Yet, we added two dimensions and new media to our tried and tested programme: building communities amongst our bursars on campuses and making sure that bursars acquire the kind of personal skills that will increase their chances of successfully dealing with the academic and social challenges they faced. A peer mentor programme was launched on all campuses and we started experimenting with social media as a means of enhancing the personal attention part of our approach that remained anchored in on-campus individual meetings with bursars once per semester. The use of social media also has the potential of supporting the sense of belonging our community building programme intend fostering on all campuses.

Implications for other implementers and for broader systems and policy development. 

After having run a successful pilot of a peer mentor programme, the new approach was rolled-out to all university campuses in 2011 and further refined during 2012.

Individual attention

The new online bursary management system that we started using in 2011 enables us to flag students who present a problem during the on-campus individual visits. We refer students who need additional interventions to the tutoring and counselling services available on campuses. We make it our business to know what the various institutions offer in this regard and how it works. 

Sense of belonging

Personal attention has always been the foundation of our approach to student support. In recent years we added the building of communities of mutual care on all campuses where we have a critical mass of beneficiaries as the basis of a peer mentor programme. The community building workshops we offered as pilots in 2012 worked so well that we will continue along this route. We pride ourselves that we are responsive to feedback from students.

Three incidents in 2012 capture our learning:

  • During a peer mentor training workshop the facilitator got somewhat frustrated by the lack of enthusiasm generated by his best efforts. The answer to his eventual question proved to be pivotal: “As students we always have to read handbooks and workbooks and prepare for tests and class. To expect us to add just another session of the same kind to the already hectic schedule of first year students just means that Studietrust is becoming boring. First year students sometimes just want to chill a bit.”
  • During an individual face-to-face meeting with another student our mentor was told the following: “I am a peer mentor on my res floor and in my academic department. So I actually belong to many communities here at varsity. But Studietrust is my most important community as I feel part of its drive to change people’s lives.”
  • The third encounter was when one of our bursars cried for most of the first semester individual consultation with our senior mentor. Her father’s struggling business went bust and they lost the little they had. The upheaval caused her to do badly in some of her B Com Accounting subjects and as a result she was excluded from the CA stream.  When our senior mentor returned for the second semester personal consultations, the student’s eyes were bright and shining. What happened? “It all started during the orientation workshop you presented on our campus in January. You told us to take charge of our own destiny. I stopped blaming my circumstances. You also introduced us to practical skills we could master in the process. I studied the Studietrust peer mentor manual and applied each and every part of it, from goal setting to time management to stress management, and I can tell you – it works! I became more productive, using my time better. I planned every week beforehand and even every day. I used the best time of the day to plan and used lists that I followed meticulously. I passed all my exams in June, so well that I was readmitted to the CA stream. Please tell all your students that they have no excuse – everything is available. They should just follow your advice!”

On the basis of these three encounters (representing data saturation around these issues) we revised our mentor and support programme according to the following principles:

  • Each gathering facilitated by Studietrust must take the form of an energising event. Students must leave with a sense of having been uplifted by the experience and that they belong to a community of mutual inspiration and care.
  • The peer mentor programme must be based in this sense of belonging. We learned the basics of community building from Symphonia (www.symphonia.co.za), an outfit with which we share a passion for possibility and education. Their methods are based in the work of Peter Block.
  • The skills workbooks and manuals are available as resources on our student portal. We know that using them will be beneficial to our students and we will tirelessly remind them of that. We are also continuously revising the content based on practical experience.

Counselling support

Our policy is that we are not a professional counselling outfit although we will train our administrators and mentors in lay counselling from 2013. We refer students in need of more intensive counselling to professional counsellors on campus. Some of our donors also make available to their bursars access to the wellness programmes of the company. When students accept the bursary they are asked for consent that Studietrust may alert a counsellor if we judge that there is such a need.

Academic support

Here, too, the policy is that we do not engage in subject-specific tutorials or one-on-one interventions. These facilities are available on campuses and our job is to make sure that students at risk do make use of what is offered by the universities.

We do, however, offer holiday seminars to bursars sponsored by donors who are willing to foot the bill for this added intervention. We started with winter seminars in 2010 for students on a Sasol Inzalo Foundation bursary. We partner with the Ukuqonda Institute (www.ukuqonda.co.za) in offering a curriculum that does not pretend to be “extra classes” in Maths and Physics. Called “Threshold Concepts in Maths, Science and Technology” this intensive week-long programme exposes students to problems that they must solve with their own resources. The emphasis is on critical thinking and problem solving and the effect is remarkable. First year students fresh from the brutal “Hero to Zero” experience (or from 81% in matric Maths to 18% in the first university Maths test) regain their confidence and sense of self and return to university with a new determination and resolve to master the new challenges. The academic curriculum during the holiday seminars is interspersed with soft skill offerings with an emphasis on fun and creativity – many of our students associate doing their best with not having fun and just sitting in front of their books, which could become unproductive.

Research and Evaluation

Our mentor and support programme is constantly evaluated and researched, as it is our aim to develop a successful model that can be replicated. Our principal partner in this is the Sasol Inzalo Foundation. Some presentations of results in this regard are already available online:

  • Vosloo, MM & Blighnaut, S 2010. “From Hero to Zero … and back? The journey of first year access students in mainstream programmes. ”http://www.assaf.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/Vosloo-Blignaut-Hero-to-Zero.pdf
  • Human, C et al 2010. “Strategic and conceptual challenges experienced by first-year students while attempting to solve problems that require mathematical modelling.” http://www.assaf.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Zuki-HumanEtAlProblemSolvingMathModellingOct2010.pdf
  • Vosloo, M, Hofmeyr M & Letlape, M 2012. “Supporting tertiary access for disadvantaged students: Lessons from the Sasol Inzalo Foundation’s bursary programme.” 

We use a narrative approach strengthened by quantitative methods to do research on the factors of success in higher education and hope to make more of the findings available in future through the medium of the DGMT Learning Briefs.


Moser, C.O.N. (ed.) 2007. Reducing Global Poverty. The case for Asset Accumulation. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press. 

Spicker, P, Leguizamón, S.A. & Gordon, D. (eds) 2006. Poverty. An International Glossary. Second Edition. London; New York: Zed Books.


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In Short

In this comprehensive learning brief Studietrust shares the theoretical work underlying their approach to fighting poverty by connecting young people with academic potential to study opportunities.  They share their core strategies as well as some of some of the valuable lessons that they have learned during their 38 years of implementation. 

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