Learning Through Doing: Lessons from a Review of DGMT’s Bursary Partners

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Tuesday, 30 April, 2013 - 10:52

This article gives a glimpse into the key findings of the DG Murray Trust’s independent review of seven of its eight long-term bursary partners, which it commissioned in 2012

In 2012, the DG Murray Trust commissioned an independent review of 7 of our 8 long-term bursary partners.  The following summary, written by the independent reviewer, Andrew Hartnack, gives a glimpse into the key findings of that review and its implications for this sector.  

For many years, the DG Murray Trust (DGMT) has supported programmes which provide financial and psychosocial support to young people with the aim of increasing their access to higher and further education, and lowering or preventing educational drop-out rates. In early 2012, DGMT commissioned an evaluative review of seven such bursary partners to find out what the dynamics and impacts of each of their support models have been; to document emerging lessons and inform the Trust’s future approach to investing in bursary programmes.

The review, which was conducted between March and July 2012, involved the following organisations:

In addition, the successful support model developed by another DGMT partner, the Rural Education Access Programme (REAP), was considered as a comparative model to those under assessment. To obtain qualitative insight on each partner’s support model, each of them were visited over a number of days, during which interviews and group discussions were conducted with staff (37 individuals in total) and beneficiaries (46 individuals) and activities such as teaching and mentoring were observed. Key documents and Internet resources on each organisation were also studied for additional information.

Key findings and lessons emerging

Detailed case studies provided many lessons and valuable insights into each bursary partner organisation’s support model and approach. Case studies documented the history and rationale of each programme, described the model of support used, assessed its impact, and explored challenges, weaknesses and opportunities. This learning brief presents common or systemic lessons and themes emerging from the overall evaluation of these programmes.

The following themes emerged: 

Support programmes are at different stages of development

Each of the reviewed organisations and their models of support are in different stages of development. Some are already comprehensive and well-structured (e.g. Ubuntu). Others are going through the growing pains of developing more structured and sustainable futures (e.g. Sumbandila), while a number are already making good progress on this journey (e.g. Studietrust; UYDF). DGMT has played a significant role in encouraging most of these organisations to go beyond simply providing financial support by developing effective mentoring support systems. It is also nudging many of them towards providing specific support in linking their beneficiaries to post-study opportunities (entrepreneurial and formal jobs). Most of the organisations are in the process of evolving away from a simply charitable approach towards a developmental approach through creating and implementing programmatic strategies and forming partnerships that have a wider impact than simply meeting the individual needs of their beneficiaries. An important lesson from the review is that each stage of development brings its own challenges. For example, becoming a large and well-structured organisation can have an adverse effect on the personal care and attention that each beneficiary experiences given that a less personal and more bureaucratic approach is often required. 

Need to broaden the significant qualitative impact

DGMT has supported bursary programmes which have a national reach (REAP, Studietrust), those which work in one or two provinces (ASF, ASSET, The Access Trust, UYDF) and those with a more localised focus (Sumbandila, Ubuntu). Together, these programmes have had a significant reach, both spatially and in terms of their impact on young people in various levels of the education system, especially high school, university and Further Education and Training (FET). Through both their financial support and their mentoring, tutoring and psychosocial support models, all of these programmes have made a significant contribution to the lives of their beneficiaries, as confirmed by statistics on pass and graduation rates in most instances, as well as the testimonies and perspectives of the beneficiaries themselves. Tracking studies conducted by some organisations (e.g. REAP) also show a very positive long-term impact for direct beneficiaries, their families and, in some cases, wider communities.
 
However, it is clear that the scale of need in all of the contexts in which these organisations operate is so great that they alone cannot realistically be expected to bring about wide-scale change in the short-term. Most are assisting between 100 and 1000 beneficiaries in various ways, but there are still many more young people who cannot be catered for by these programmes. Even Ubuntu, which offers excellent and comprehensive support to 4000 residents of Zwide (Port Elizabeth), only assists a small fraction of the township’s inhabitants. There is thus a need to identify and support similar support programmes in each province to magnify the impact.
 
Facilitating access and supporting those most vulnerable
 
Despite the inherent degree to which potential and merit are necessary in bursary programmes, most of the organisations in the review facilitate access to bursary funding for those who would not normally find it easy to win a scholarship. The FET support organisations (ASF, The Access Trust), for example, are allowing non-academic students a chance to become qualified and, like ASSET and UYDF, they take those who simply gain entry to their tertiary institutions rather than top students. Other organisations, such as Studietrust, take a mixture of good performers and those who have shown potential but not yet produced results. Mentoring programmes are also tailored to the needs of students who do not have the intellectual, social or academic resources to excel in their studies without specialised support. Additionally, while it could be argued that such bursary programmes will always favour the lucky few who show potential, the review showed that beneficiaries often take skills and insights they learned on these programmes and impart them to fellow learners or younger siblings not benefiting directly. For example, learners on Sumbandila’s Outliers programme, who come from under-resourced schools in rural Limpopo, take their knowledge of science experiments conducted in a fully-equipped laboratory back to their schools where their fellow learners, who rely on textbook diagrams, benefit from their first-hand insights.    
 
Addressing the ‘first gap’ seen as a primary role
 
Bridging the ‘first gap’, namely that of getting young people from school to university, and helping them succeed there, is a role that most of the organisations have seen as their primary one. It is clear that the facilitation of access to quality education and student support is a very profound way, in and of itself, of allowing young people better access to employment opportunities. Recent studies have found that tertiary study in particular not only significantly increases young peoples’ chances of securing a formal job or successful self-employment, but also increases their level of earnings. A tracking study of REAP’s first cohort of students found that by five or six years after graduation, 75 percent of them had managed to obtain full-time employment. This was without any specific REAP programme of linking these students to employment opportunities. Thus, with the exception of UYDF, whose model has employment built into it, there were no specific programmes to link graduates directly to working opportunities.
 
The ‘second gap’ is still not widely addressed

As stated above, support for those in the transition period between tertiary qualification and work is not yet prioritised by most of the organisations. The desire to provide such support is increasingly present but they suffer from capacity and resource constraints, even in their current focal areas. UYDF alone has developed a very strong approach towards getting its graduates back to rural hospitals and supporting them in various ways when they are there. However, some other organisations are beginning to think beyond their ‘first gap’ role towards a larger role in facilitating more direct access to employment. Studietrust has recognised in its strategic plan that helping its graduates through the ‘second gap’ is important but is currently only encouraging its students to perform holiday work as a way of increasing their employment chances. Sumbandila, meanwhile, has linked some young people to opportunities, but its proposed drop-in centre has not yet attracted funding.
 
Assistance through key transition periods is crucial

There is wide acceptance of the fact that financial, academic, psychosocial and other support mechanisms are especially important in key transition stages. Transition phases are not just the obvious ones such as between school and higher/further education and between educational and work stages, but smaller stages along the way which require support, such as in grade nine where effective subject choice guidance in required, the application stage, university orientation or employment preparation periods.

The following are some very important transition period support measures:

  • Financial assistance: Even before bursaries become an important bridge, there may be other forms of financial support required for disadvantaged young people. The review highlighted that for many learners, the provision of financial assistance is crucial if they hope even to apply for further educational opportunities. Some of the students interviewed suggested that there are many in their communities who have potential but do not even have the resources to pay the R100 it requires to submit an application to a tertiary institution.
  • Subject choice guidance: Another crucial intervention at high school level includes career and subject choice guidance for grade nines, as is done by ASSET, Sumbandila, UYDF, ASF and Ubuntu to varying degrees. Assistance in choosing the best institutions, programmes and subjects for higher/further education is also crucial for matric students.  
  • Application assistance: Some of the above organisations also help matric learners with the paperwork and documentation required for the application process, as well as advice on how to fill out and submit these correctly. This kind of support becomes even more important in an age when institutions are increasingly moving towards online submissions processes, which can exclude or intimidate those from rural or disadvantaged backgrounds.   
  • Induction and orientation: Many of the reviewed organisations have some form of induction process for their students, be it a beginning of the year workshop, introductions to mentors or handouts with key information. Taking learners on campus familiarity tours, as done by Ubuntu, is a support measure that is enjoyed by learners, but is not vital. Ubuntu’s approach to induction, where first years are accompanied, registered and settled in by senior students and staff, is also the most comprehensive approach.
  • Life skills and career workshops: The work preparation efforts of most of the organisations centre on pre-graduation workshops where students are taught life skills and given tips for successful employment (e.g. CV development, interview deportment, work ethics and honesty). Some also take their students to career fairs and give them advice about what career paths to pursue.
  • Internships, holiday work and volunteering: A number of the organisations have found that helping their beneficiaries to gain experience through volunteering, holiday work and internships is a very useful support strategy. REAP requires its students to volunteer, which the students themselves have identified as an important way of making connections and gaining experience that is useful later. UYDF has a compulsory holiday work programme for its medical students at rural hospitals which is a key success factor of its work. Students get hands-on experience, build relationships with local hospital staff (which is essential for their later work at these hospitals) and can apply the lessons they learn from the situations they face directly to their studies. Ubuntu and Studietrust both provide some internal internships as a way to build on the experience of their students. FET students, who have a practical workplace element built into their courses, require further support as many experience difficulties during this period since there are relatively few employers willing to take student interns. The Access Trust is thus putting in place stronger ways of getting students through the internship phase and on to permanent employment.
  • Opportunity sharing via the Internet: Most of the organisations now share opportunities with their alumni on their Facebook pages and through other social media.  

Flexible bursary approaches which include partial study loans can work

The review found that financial assistance for learners and students does not always have to take the form of full-cost bursaries, but that a combination of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) student loans and bursary support may make the difference for many students. There is also much to be said for a flexible approach to funding disadvantaged students which can look for ways to increase merit-based funding as students respond to mentoring, or allow an extra year of support to students, rather than cut them off because they have not completed in the expected time. Many beneficiaries felt that a partial NSFAS loan was not too heavy a burden for them to pay back and that it gave them an added sense of responsibility to know that they had to meet some of their study costs, or motivated them to do well in order to reduce the amount they owed (through converting it into a bursary).
 
There are a range of successful approaches to mentoring

A range of mentoring approaches are employed, most of which are very effective. As such, the review found that there is not necessarily one ‘best practice’ approach to mentoring, but that varying context-specific ways of providing a range of academic and psychosocial support measures are successful:

  • REAP’s model revolves around a series (at least four per year) of life skills workshops that their students are expected to attend (covering things like time management, study skills and exam technique), a personal relationship with a mentor, with whom monthly meetings are held, and advice and referral to other assistance where the student needs this. REAP’s graduation rate has been over 65 percent, which is much higher than the national average.
  • UYDF has developed a similar model of support, which also centres on its network of mentors who meet monthly with students and refer them to specialised help if they are struggling. They also get to learn first-hand from qualified medical practitioners during their compulsory holiday work and support each other during this time and at the yearly imbizo. UYDF’s 90 percent pass rate is testimony to the success of this mentoring strategy.
  • Studietrust has adopted a different approach, using peer mentors and bi-annual campus visits as their main mentoring strategy. This may not be as supportive as monthly mentoring sessions, but it appears that senior student mentors are playing a good ongoing support role to their younger peers. In addition, Studietrust keeps in touch with its students through their SMS and Mxit counselling services. Their pass and graduation rates appear to be on par with REAP, which suggests this approach is also adequate.
  • Ubuntu also has a different approach, providing fairly intense psychosocial support, mentoring, tutoring, referrals, holiday camps and ongoing medical services to its students. A Family Support Specialist (dedicated to scholarship students) visits each of the students at least once a semester and telephones them monthly to ensure that they have the support they need. Ubuntu is still struggling to achieve the tertiary-level results it hopes for but its After School Programme has had very positive results and is also holistic and comprehensive.
  • The Access Trust has recently upgraded its support model to include a Student Support Officer who conducts personal visits once a semester, and holds workshops with all of its beneficiaries. As with most of the programmes, if specific academic support is needed, students are referred to campus tutoring or academic development staff.
  • Sumbandila has a very good support programme for its scholarship and Outliers learners, providing personalised tutoring, psychosocial support and skills development.
  • ASSET currently has the most ad hoc tertiary level mentoring support programme, with students only seeing staff once or twice a year if they are not performing well. By contrast, it has developed a fairly good high school support programme.
  • ASF’s support model, which relies mostly on postal correspondence, is the least hands-on, although the organisation says that its approach does assist students to access and complete their schooling successfully.        

An additional successful approach to mentoring and capacity building used particularly by REAP, UYDF, Ubuntu and Studietrust has been the holiday work, community service and volunteering that are required. These develop leadership and altruism, connect young students to people, opportunities and ideas which may come in useful and encourage students to take responsibility over both their lives and the problems their communities face.     
 
Maintaining relationships after graduation is challenging but important
The bursary organisations have found it difficult to stay in close contact with their former students, especially due to their high mobility and frequent changing of telephone numbers. There is an increasing desire by most programmes, however, to maintain contact with graduates, create an identity that they will continue to feel proud of, use success stories to promote the organisation and even tap into their future earning power to fund the organisation. UYDF, with its strong link to the careers of its graduates at rural hospitals, and its continued support role, has the best contact with its alumni. Ubuntu also maintains contact with its students because their families continue to be on the programme while they live in Zwide. Studietrust has former students among its Trustees and like most of the other organisations is trying to build a strong alumni association. For most of these organisations, communications technologies like Facebook have opened up new possibilities for maintaining contact and fostering a continued sense of connection to the organisation and fellow graduates. This will be very useful for organisations when they need to conduct tracking studies or ask graduates to give back to them in monetary or other ways.
 
Potential to address systemic blockages in government services
Most programmes are still concentrating on assisting young people, but a few are also contributing towards addressing systemic problems in education, employment creation and health. There is great potential for most of the organisations to have similar kinds of positive impacts at a more systemic level:  

  • Health and employment creation: UYDF is having the most profound and widespread impact by taking rural learners and giving them access to guaranteed career options and also addressing the chronic skills shortages in rural hospitals in KwaZulu-Natal. In addition, new medical departments (e.g. therapy, psychology) have been built up where none existed before and hospital managers have internal support and pressure to request for posts, resources and other needs from the provincial Department of Health. The government is also now looking to run its own bursary scheme along the lines championed by UYDF. Ubuntu has also played a role in assisting local clinics with administration of antiretroviral therapy and also set up food gardens in schools and clinics. Its clinic provides a very important alternative healthcare service for its direct beneficiaries. This has the effect of taking the pressure off other local facilities since many of the community’s most medically needy people are being cared for by Ubuntu.
  • Education: Some of Ubuntu’s educational endeavours (computer centres, school psychosocial support) have had a positive impact on the local high school system. Sumbandila has also built partnerships with rural schools in order to have an impact that goes beyond helping individuals. Apart from learners on the Outliers programme providing their peers (and even teachers) with knowledge they acquire on the programme, Sumbandila has also linked a local computer company to two of its rural schools. These schools had received a donation of computers, but they had never been set up or maintained and nobody knew how to run them. Sumbandila set up the computers properly and learners on the Outliers programme from the two schools are being trained to manage their schools’ laboratory and to teach other learners how to use the internet and other skills.       

Innovative funding strategies are required for sustainability

Each organisation uses different approaches to source funding for their bursaries, mentoring programmes and overhead costs. Ubuntu has by far the most well developed international funding strategy, including offices overseas, while none of the other organisations are in a position to emulate them and thus continue to rely mostly on private or corporate donations from local and overseas sources. Most partner organisations have managed to raise sufficient funds but have found their position insecure at times and difficult to manage, especially in the context of the global economic downturn. A couple of the organisations are thus turning towards the large amounts of money now available from government sources for bursaries. The aim is to secure bursary money from the government and ask private donors only to cover mentoring support. It is hoped that overhead costs can then be built into the costs of mentoring. The risk for these organisations is that government sources of funding, especially through NSFAS and the NSF, can also be insecure and prone to blockages and delays which make running a bursary support programme extremely difficult.
 
Lobbying together could unlock more support from government

The review highlighted that this group of similar programmes might find it strategically beneficial to operate as a block on certain issues of mutual interest rather than as competing individual organisations. An interest group may, for example, be able to lobby more successfully for financial and other support from government departments or bodies such as NSFAS and the NSF and such an approach might also enable them to address systemic problems in their sector more effectively. Regular networking in this group would also result in a more direct sharing of good practices and lessons.

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