During 2011, Studietrust received a visit from 2 employees of one of South Africa’s prestigious scholarship programmes. They wanted to know whether we at Studietrust would be willing to share our resilience test with them. We said we do not have a specific resilience test. Yet we have to agree that our bursars generally show astounding resilience. The scholarship programme in question aims at developing entrepreneurs. After their visit we realised that the majority of our bursars will only become entrepreneurs as a measure to face an emergency. They generally want a good and stable job with a good salary so that they can start fulfilling their responsibilities.
During our subsequent second semester campus visits we used the individual meeting with students to test our hypothesis. The overwhelming majority of students answered the question “what is your deepest motivation?” with a variation of “to change the circumstances of my family.” At our peer mentor workshops at the beginning of 2012 one of the questions to be discussed was ”What is your most important role?”. The majority (by far) of students answered: ”I am a daughter / son / brother / sister”. When asked to explain the standard answer was that their parents have made great sacrifices to provide them with an education that led to their opportunity to study. Their entire extended family is reliant on them making a success of this opportunity. Their greatest fear is to disappoint their parents / siblings / extended family members. This is nothing new. Yet, through these experiences where something known became crystal clear, we realised that we are building the nation through building the middle class.
By far the majority of our bursars have identified their ultimate goal as changing the circumstances of their families. The strategy they selected for this is further and tertiary education. The greatest challenges they are facing is that (1) even the good schools are not preparing them adequately for the demands of higher education and (2) the further education colleges are in a crisis with only a few functioning properly (in 2011 we experienced this first hand when one of our FETC bursars for whom we organised an internship was evaluated and found not to know the fundamentals of his profession in spite of having qualified).
We cannot do much about the state of education in schools and even less about the standards in FETCs. The greatest challenge we thus face is to support our tertiary students adequately so that they do not drop out or fail or take too long to qualify. The second challenge that we traditionally did not see as core business is to assist in preparing our bursary students for the world of work and to attempt to mediate internship and employment opportunities when they qualify.
Studietrust's Programme Strategy
Our overall goal is to maximise potential and our strategy is to increase throughput. This strategy is served by the following tactics:
developing an automated bursary admin system (to provide more time to invest in student support)
linking potential to opportunity through administering bursary opportunities
increasing the throughput rate of our beneficiaries through our support programme
instituting an effective exit strategy that would ensure greater work readiness of our beneficiaries and open up internship and employment opportunities.
We are not in a position to offer tutoring or other academic support (apart from using part of the bursary to register our bursars for online programmes like Maths Buddy). That is strictly the responsibility of the universities. But we aim to provide psycho-social support through our peer mentor programme and our face to face visits. We also ensure that students know what support is available on campus and require that they attend workshops on topics like study skills. We make material available online that peer mentors are trained to use when they meet with their mentees.The expected outcome of our strategy is that we would be able to take on a larger group of bursars annually while simultaneously increasing our throughput rate.
Creating an automated admin system
We have over the years succeeded in selecting beneficiaries with academic potential and resilience. We are in the process of developing a model of student support that will be affordable by making use of modern technology and sustainable as it will really enable students to overcome the challenges described above.On 12 March 2011 we migrated to an online bursary management system and database. We purchased the system at the end of the previous year and intended to commence using it for bursary administration from the beginning of 2011. However, a few project management shortcomings and the immense pressure at the beginning of the year to contract new and continuing bursars, finalise their budgets and schedule payments, saw us continuing using our old Dos-based database and file-based management system. By the second week of March we were literally coming apart at the seams. Our old system just could not cope with the growth we experienced since 2008. We eventually realised that we are in any case heading for disaster so we could just as well try out the new system as it promised a much quicker lead time to prepare contracts, budgets and payments. On 12 March 2011 we officially migrated to DevMan and became a learning community. We struggled right through the year to catch up. But the new system did allow us to work much faster and we cancelled the backlog within weeks.
A major challenge of such a migration from old technology to a new system is to get your head around the new possibilities. Using a new system with old system thinking can prevent utilising its full capability. In 2011 we piloted an online application form which we are currently fine-tuning for general availability from 1 April.
Linking potential to opportunity through administering bursary opportunities
The number of students we are able to assist has grown steadily since 2008 although not as steeply as the amount of money spent on bursaries. This must be understood against the background of donors starting to provide full cost bursaries. Allocating full-cost bursaries with CSI money is risky as failure or drop-outs become much more expensive. However, we found a way of not abandoning students who have to add a year to their studies by spreading the original budget over the extended period and assisting with administering a NSFAS loan for the shortfall in the following year and the final year. As poverty remains the greatest reason for South Africa’s unacceptable high non-completion rate in higher education, we find the policies of companies who cancel bursaries, on the basis of in some cases one failed subject, counter-productive.
For example, at the beginning of 2011, Studietrust was approached by a BSc Actuarial Science student from rural Limpopo whose full-cost bursary (the sponsor will remain nameless) was cancelled on account of him having failed one minor subject in his second year. We administered a loan to the amount of R54,000 (the maximum available in 2011 – an indication of the severe financial need of the student). The student subsequently passed all subjects in his third year and graduated with a BSc Actuarial Science degree in regulation time. We pleaded with his sponsor to re-admit him to their bursary programme for the Hons degree and they agreed. But this student would have been one of the drop-outs if we did not provide a safety net.
Allocating partial bursaries still has a place, as is demonstrated by the Studietrust Access Programme funded by the DG Murray Trust. In 2011 we supplemented the access bursaries of 14 of the 135 students. On average the 14 students needed R35,500 to supplement their access bursaries. 40% of this amount would have been changed into a bursary if a student passed all subjects and 20% if a student passed 50% of subjects, and so on. Since 2011 no interest is charged until a beneficiary starts working and then the interest is 80% of the REPO rate.
Increasing the throughput rate through psycho-social support of beneficiaries
The personal attention we have always given to bursary students remains the core of our programme. The success rate (not throughput rate!) of our bursars (measured in terms of students who successfully completed sufficient number of subjects to remain on the regulation time of their respective programmes) dropped steadily since 2008, from 90% to 84%. This can be attributed to greater numbers in the programme and the effects of the new NSC curriculum. We were happy to report in 2011 that the 2010 success rate stabilised on 84%, the same as in 2009, but would like to see it rise again in subsequent years. This is a long term undertaking. The measures we put in place include a well-structured programme dealing with soft skills (goal formulation, prioritisation, time management, study skills, etc.) that fit within an overall framework based in neuroscience. We are already extensively utilising social media to create the sense of community that on large campuses play a significant role in supporting students from families where they are mostly the first member to venture into higher education.
It is Studietrust’s policy to refer our bursary students to the support services available on their campuses. Since its inception Studietrust enjoyed a special partnership with the University of Johannesburg. Dr André van Zyl of UJ’s student development unit, has helped define the “unpreparedness” of first year students which is so critical to support. One element of this is that first years are often overly confident. Many first years view academic success as being related in some way to luck. A starting point of preparing them for success at higher education is to make them grasp that success has everything to do with what you do and how you do it.
The unrealistically good matric results cause many students to arrive on campus overly confident. The university experience tends to reduce this confidence to a severe lack thereof. Between these two extremes student support systems must remind students that they do have potential but that this alone will not prevent a bumpy ride ahead. Only 15% of the South African 18-24 age group participate in some form of higher education. This is too small a percentage to cater for the country’s development needs. New criteria will have to be developed to give access to higher education for persons who do not “look good” in terms of the traditional criteria.
Great forward strides have been made with regards to equity – the 15% reflects the country’s demographics fairly well. But the dismal success rate is the big problem.
Over-confident first years struggle to get to grips with the “surprise of failure” – those with the necessary “grit” are the ones who do not drop out as a result. André finds the work of the psychologist Victor Frankl relevant in this regard: students who can find purpose and meaning in their lives and circumstances are the ones who persevere, and they are not always the ones who look the strongest. The UJ programme attempts to give beginning students some perspective: Having been a good football player at school does not guarantee respect when you join a professional club. All you have is potential – which must be realised before you can claim any new status. And for this a major step-up is required. Forming an idea of where they want to be in 10 years and relating that image to where they are now and what needs to be done to get there is another exercise that very few beginner students have ever undertaken.
One major cause of failure at higher education is the lack of step-up when it comes to time actually and effectively spent studying. Time management and effective and appropriate study methods are essential skills to be learned. When students arrive they are still in the comfort zone of secondary education and the new experience then immediately places them in a panic zone. The goal should be to get them adjusted to living in the “stretch zone”, in-between the extremes.
Warning students that they are in for a rough ride does not have to be de-motivating. Most of them will fail their first tests. The important thing is to be there with support when they do. Make sure they understand why failing at this juncture is not unexpected. And show them how to do the step-up needed to start passing. It is not so much the suffering that goes hand in hand with the surprise of failure than the confusion that destroys a student’s morale. Being there to give perspective and to offer a story that includes the experience of failure but does not end there should be the role of student support programmes.
Dr Van Zyls description of this process mirrors our own experience with student support over the years had led to more or less the same conclusions and approach. Notably we the use of the Hero’s Journey as master narrative and our policy of not cancelling bursaries when students fail for the first time.
Instituting an effective exit strategy
There should be no misunderstanding that this is the toughest undertaking of them all. Encouraging students who are first generation higher education participants is one thing. Countering the expectations raised by a whole society with regard to the magic contained in a degree or diploma is something else. The disappointing realisation confronting many graduates is that the qualification does not guarantee employment. And for those who are lucky to be appointed in a position (mostly of further training and development), the lack of a sense of context on the part of the new employee coupled with the relatively untransformed circumstances in corporate South Africa often lead to tears. We realise that we will not have instant success in this difficult field but have started working with some of our donors/partners in developing programmes that will eventually benefit all our bursars.
In 2011 we gained the know-how to use the internet for CV marketing. Our partners RMB, Investec Bank and the FNB Fund ran successful work readiness seminars in July. Our partner the AVI Community Development Trust took in all their bursars for vac work and appointed all bursars who completed in learnership and graduate development programmes. We are closely involved with these initiatives and will apply what we learn to our other programmes to be piloted in 2012. The pilot will involve students on Sasol Inzalo Foundation bursaries. In the first and second years these students participate in a “Threshold concepts in Maths, Science and Technology” seminar in July. From the third year onwards (the first intake will be in their third years in 2012) the students will participate in a week-long work readiness seminar in July. From 2013 we will roll out this intervention to all our final year bursars – funding permitting.
From 2012 we are also adopting an approach called “Career Construction through Life Design” (see the publications of ML Savickas and others) that will inform all our interactions with our beneficiaries. It sits well with what we are already doing, starting with the “Essay on my Life” that bursary applicants have to write. Our donor Investec Bank also made available funding for the development of a Mixit-based career (and other) counselling service. Our own Career Information Helpline (started in 2008 with Investec funding) was discontinued after we became aware of the excellent service rendered by SAQA Career Information Services. The Mixit-project (developed and run by BrainWave Projects) became possible when funding earmarked for our Career Information Helpline project became available. As our previous Mentor Programme Coordinator was promoted to Projects Manager, we appointed a new coordinator at the beginning of 2012 as well as a PhD student in Clinical Psychology as a project officer and research consultant to drive the material development and implementation and evaluation of the new initiatives.
Implications for systems and policy development
From the foregoing we list the following implications of what we learned:
Project manage any migration of data to a more current database and management system with the utmost care. It is a truism and yet we stumbled and we are seemingly not the only ones.
Make sure you really understand the immense pressure under which bursars from a poor background are. Expose yourself to the reality of your bursars. Failure or dropping out will have consequences for the whole community. Design safety nets for those who fail subjects or who have to add a year to regulation time before completion. They will complete – just give them a break.
Students (especially on large campuses) appreciate belonging to a community network. Universities are doing their best with limited funds but there is great appreciation for enhancing the psycho-social support available to bursars. A mentor programme will stand bursars in good stead once they join the world of work as mentoring and coaching have become mainstream in most companies. But be careful not to try to become a university. Make use of and enhance what is already available on campus.
Be aware of the fact that the second gap to be minded, the one separating higher and further education from the world of work, is just as wide, if not wider, than the one between school and university. The complicating factors here are (1) a culture of believing the qualification is the passport to a stable job and a good income without taking into account that institutions of higher and further learning are struggling to keep up with the demands of the workplace – not to speak of the slump in the economy; and (2) insufficient transformation in many workplaces. Work readiness programmes have to confront these realities.