Fee-free education isn’t enough

'The next few months will bring lots of uncertainty but there are opportunities to accelerate our efforts aimed at university completion and graduate employment. South Africa’s students deserve it.' (Graphic: John McCann)

'The next few months will bring lots of uncertainty but there are opportunities to accelerate our efforts aimed at university completion and graduate employment. South Africa’s students deserve it.' (Graphic: John McCann)

COMMENT

After some uncertainty, South Africa learnt last week that, over the next three years, free tertiary education will be phased in for students from households that earn less than R350 000 a year.

More than 340 000 students at universities and almost 420 000 full-time students at technical and vocational education training colleges will be funded from a budget allocation of R57-billion from the South African government.

Although this is a significant step in educating South African youth, it leaves philanthropists and other funders to assume that students currently supported by scholarship programmes will now be taken care of under the new free education dispensation.

But, in this time of transition and uncertainty, it is premature for any funder to change strategy, pull out of funding higher education or shut down their programmes. On the contrary, students still need our support to make it through university and on to successful careers.

It’s no secret that students who finish university do better in life than those who don’t. But after seven years of leading the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation’s university success work in South Africa, I can tell you that supporting students to graduation and beyond is a complicated equation that takes funding and a whole lot more.

Our Dell Young Leaders programme offers hundreds of students from disadvantaged backgrounds financial, academic and psychosocial support to earn their degrees and secure employment. It’s a successful model but it takes significant planning, student tracking, targeted interventions, advanced analytics and more to achieve the programme outcomes — a 90% graduation rate and 100% employment of all graduates.

For most foundations, trusts, corporates and individuals who collectively invest more than R1.2-billion annually in universities and students, the news about free tertiary education raises questions about whether there is still a need for their contributions.

To these individuals and donors, I can tell you: there certainly is. Funding will need to
be directed at increasing efforts that focus on university completion and graduate employment.

Why? Because the needs of students will remain. The free education policy will not translate into students being more prepared for university, nor will it improve graduation rates (which are reported at 36.9% for National Student Financial Aid Scheme students and just over 52% for all students). And it won’t preparestudents for employment.

Free education will remove the barrier of registration fees, eliminate the burden of not knowing how to pay for university, and allow graduates to contribute financially to their families soon after they graduate and find employment without having to pay back a loan. But free education will put significant pressure on students to succeed academically within regulation time.

Foundations, trusts, corporates and individuals will still be required to use their resources to remove the barriers for matriculants to go to university, and to support those who are likely to face strict exclusion policies aimed at preventing the system from being clogged by those unlikely to graduate in regulation time.

Lecturers and support services providers will probably reach a breaking point dealing with the vast number of students not able to cope with the pressure. Funding will be required to aid teaching and learning programmes, because vice-chancellors working with limited budgets have to ensure the institutions continue to operate and quality and standards are maintained.

The bottom line is that universities will need students to graduate on time. The government will need to see a return on the investment of free education. South Africa will need new taxpayers to sustain free education.

Donors and their programme staff who administer scholarships should know that there is an urgent need to focus on helping students to be successful. Here are some ways to leverage government’s investment by ensuring measurable positive effects:

  • University preparation: There is an opportunity to use donor resources to prepare matriculants for tertiary education with programmes that can offer career guidance and assist them in choosing the right course at the right institution.
  • Student support: Providing free tertiary education for students who emerged from a low-quality school system will ultimately be self-defeating in the absence of adequate support. This support does not only encompass extra tuition but also a wide range of psychosocial support measures, academic development training and practical assistance with daily needs.
  • University completion: Supporting students to graduation is hard work. Academic underpreparedness, combined with stagnant or ever-shrinking staff to cope with the crisis, will have a negative effect on the academic journey of any student, particularly first-generation university students. There is an opportunity to partner with departments and faculties to develop specialised completion programmes that can catch students before they fail and provide incentives for students at the most challenging points of their academic journey to promote on-time graduation.
  • Graduate work readiness: There is a strong preference in the workplace for hiring graduates with at least some work experience.

Scholarship providers can invest in capacity development of the poor or often nonexistent careers services at our universities.

There is an opportunity to build programmes that target professional development to narrow the gap between university and the workplace. Corporate bursary programmes can use their resources to create internships and vacation work to offer real experience that can build a CV and open doors for students.

With the alumni of the Dell Young Leaders programme, we’ve seen the effect that access to relationships, mentors and opportunities can have on a graduate who has no personal support system or network.

  • Graduate placement enablers: Free education will not get a student to an interview or provide the tools for an aspiring entrepreneur to succeed. There is an opportunity to fund enabling programmes that offer practical support like clothing for an interview, transport to interviews, as well as relocation and bridging finance for students who have little disposable income because they are starting their first job.

At the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, we embrace the possibilities offered by free education, and we remain committed to helping disadvantaged students to complete university and succeed in the professional world. But without sustained support for all aspects of higher education, thousands of young people will be unable to live up to their potential. That’s why I encourage all donors to stay the course and continue to work with the universities they supported in the past on how best to serve students in this new environment.

The next few months will bring lots of uncertainty but there are opportunities to accelerate our efforts aimed at university completion and graduate employment. South Africa’s students deserve it.

Dr Thashlin Govender leads the post-secondary success work for the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation in South Africa

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