Pilot phase of Isfap a success

Nthato Selebi, Isfap Task Team member and pilot project director addresses Isfap programme managers. (Photo: Masimba Sasa)

Nthato Selebi, Isfap Task Team member and pilot project director addresses Isfap programme managers. (Photo: Masimba Sasa)

On day two of the Ikusasa Student Financial Aid Program (Isfap) Project Manager Training Programme at the FNB Learning Centre in Johannesburg, project managers responsible for the rollout of the new student financial scheme met to discuss the track record of the new funding model and its success stories and failures to date.

The two-day workshop, led by Nthato Selebi, project director of the Thuthuka Bursary Fund, was a means to refocus after the programme’s launch in November 2016. Various roles and responsibilities were highlighted, including suggestions from parties involved as they enter the next phase of the project as a group.

Selebi notes: “The objectives of the training program was to refocus the project managers on what the goals of Isfap are, what it is we are trying to achieve, what their roles are and the roles of all the other stakeholders. Working together as partners we can make this a success.”

The right to education for all is engrained in the Constitution of South Africa. With the triple threats of poverty, inequality and unemployment plaguing many of its citizens, the need to fast-track South Africa’s skills production has reached boiling point.

Students from poor and middle-class families usually lack the resources to invest in higher education and training, and the gap between rich and poor continues to impact the economy.

Isfap was created as a funding model to support the poor and “missing” middle-class students currently at higher institutions of learning. Thirteen programme managers began intense training in March 2017 and have been appointed to assist in pilot institutions across the country.

The two-day program provided the programme managers with much-needed support, says Selebi:  “Highlighting areas they need support in is crucial, whether it be on the technology side with regards to the tools that we use to track students and administer the program, or on the side of providing students with psychosocial support, [which] was meant to bring them back to what we are all about.”

To date, a total of 698 student have received support from the programme in various categories through the pilot institutions, and R200-million has been raised for the pilot project, which sees government, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme and the private sector working together to help fund higher education and training.

Selebi says: “It is important to remember the very short space of time in which this project has come to be. Last year this time Isfap did not exist. It was just an idea, and only part of a report that was put together for the Ministerial Task Team. It was not even something that had been approved or could go ahead as a pilot. Between November, when Cabinet gave the go-ahead for us to run the pilot until now, we are still operating [for] less than a year. It was important to take a break from us running the ‘Comrades Marathon’. Let’s look [at] how far we are, and what we need in order for us to successfully get to the finish line.”

The primary role of the programme managers entails holistic academic and non-academic support, ensuring success for all students. This includes tutorial support, mentorship, psychosocial support and the managing of students’ administration needs at the various institutions.

“Funding is not the only support students need. Isfap differentiates itself in that respect. It is able to provide support in academics as well as psychosocial and financial aid, so that students can concentrate on what they need to. Our ability to be responsive is also valued. Isfap has representatives on every campus [where the pilot programme is running], so we are able to respond in a very short space of time, [which] makes the students feel that they matter,” says Selebi.

The need for a symbiotic relationship between programme managers and students is evident. It was highlighted that students have to be willing to play their part throughout the course of the programme; they need to attend lectures, actively seek mentorship, supply feedback and engage with the online support system Isfap Connect. All of these aspects are crucial for the successful implementation of the project.

Selebi says: “There are some teething problems which we need to work around. I think the biggest challenges we have faced has been marketing the programme to get students to apply and be in a position to receive funding. Students still don’t know about this enough, and [even] those that do are unsure what it is [about]. The second challenge was to get universities to appoint project managers in a short space of time. Setting up the support structure in the universities was a challenge, as you need all parties on board to provide the support the programme aims to achieve. I’m happy to say that in different, unique ways in different universities, we have been able to get around that.”

The outcomes of the refocus strategy session has had many positive returns, and Selebi remains optimistic about the success of the programme. “The fact that project managers are willing to stay on is a major one. They are committed and will stay on to see this work [to completion]. Secondly, the project managers feel competent in the work that we are asking them to do, and they [feel they] have the tools and support from us to do the work. Thirdly, they [have] become advocates for Isfap at institutions. Many other funders exist, but this will ensure the project has visibility for more to come on board.”

The need for such a program emerged after the Ministerial Task Team’s 2015 Report, which recommended the need for a pilot model that catered to the needs of poor and missing middle-class students to be tested in 2017. This was then followed by a commitment to fully implement such a model during the 2018 year.

High dropout rates of poor and working class students in the higher education and training sector was a cause for concern, as was the need to improve skills shortages currently lacking within the South African economy. It was also noted that to address these concerns, various stakeholders including government, the private sector, universities, TVET colleges and students would all have to share responsibility and work closely together.

The start-up phase has been launched successfully. A high rate of efficiency is required in the implementation the next phase of the program to cement the effectiveness of the task at hand. Nthato notes that the next phase of Isfap must look, feel and be experienced differently from the first phase — a task they are holding themselves accountable to.