The education gap – Practical solutions to key barriers

In spite of substantial government economic support for education reform, glaring gaps left by 40 years of apartheid education still riddle South Africa’s education system at every level.

Primary and secondary schools that historically served black students typically perform poorly: Grade 12 pass rates for black students are often half of that of white students.

Statistics about overall qualification for university likewise remain grim: 2012 National Senior Certificate (‘matric’) results indicated an overall 73.9% pass rate – but only 26.6% of those tested qualified for bachelor degree studies.

Results show a significant disparity that leaves poorer, more rural provinces at a disadvantage, according to the 2012 National Diagnostic Report on Learner Performance.

As they get older, more and more students of every race and economic background fall off track.

Analysis of throughput data indicates that fewer than five South Africans in 100 who enrol in Grade one of schooling graduate from university. This problem is particularly acute for disadvantaged students: only 28% of students in the National Student Financial Aid Scheme of South Africa, or NSFAS, make it to graduation.

Meanwhile, the demand for educated, employable graduates is high.

Corporations and industry are looking to higher education institutions to produce graduates capable of performing in a professional environment, and a paper commissioned by the World Bank and authored by well-known academics Glen Fisher and Ian Scott argued that “higher education has a uniquely important role in resolving the persistent skills shortage in South Africa by producing qualified graduates and postgraduates and by generating research and innovation”.

The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation likewise believes that institutions of higher education are well positioned to address South Africa’s acute skills shortage – but only if they institute effective programmes to help ensure qualified students enrol and graduate.

Closing the gap: Programmes that work

In 2010, the foundation established a grant portfolio focused on developing the next generation of young leaders in South Africa by helping promising students to succeed in higher education.

One key initiative, the Dell Young Leaders programme, targets the highest risk university students. It seeks to help these students graduate and then obtain professional employment.

While financial support is at the core of the Dell Young Leaders programme, what really distinguishes it from other bursary programmes is its intensive focus on the holistic range of academic, psychosocial and career readiness challenges students face as they make their way through education.

The foundation’s higher education portfolio also includes work with bridging programmes. These offer academically promising students who fail to earn a bachelor pass the opportunity to improve their National Senior Certificate examination results and then enrol in higher education.

Both the Science and Math Bridging Programme (SciMathUS) at Stellenbosch University and the University Preparation Program (UPP) at the University of the Free State fall into this category of work.

Our experience in the field has deepened our belief that addressing both the chronic dropout rate among disadvantaged students and South Africa’s deepening skills gap requires that institutions of higher education take pragmatic steps to address three key barriers: financial, academic and psychosocial.

1 - Financial barriers

Once accepted at university, disadvantaged students face a challenging financial path. Research indicates that as many as 30% of South African students enrolled in higher education drop out in their first year, with another 20% dropping out in the next two years.

In a survey of students who dropped out of university, the reason cited by more respondents than any other – by a wide margin – was: "I did not have funds to pay for my studies” [1].

The reality for most university students is that they cannot rely on financial support from their parents or guardians. And despite the best efforts of the NSFAS, students experience extreme anxiety as they struggle to sustain themselves from month to month.

Many work in full-time or part-time jobs to supplement their limited financial resources. In many cases, up to 80% of a student’s time goes towards meeting the last 20% of his or her financial responsibility. This places enormous strain on students’ academic performance.

2 - Academic barriers

In primary and secondary education, South African learners underperform even relative to peer countries. Students – even top performers – educated in a deeply dysfunctional primary and secondary education system often arrive at university with massive academic deficits.

The problem is not easy to solve. Despite significant charitable investments in reforming the public school system since the end of apartheid – an estimated US$330 million annually – overall performance has declined.

Fewer than three in four students pass ‘matric’. Moreover, large numbers of young South Africans drop out well before Grade 12.

This systemic failure is even more stark when parsed by race: although schools are now open to South Africans of all races, most primary and secondary schools that have historically served black students continue to perform at apartheid-era levels.

The resulting achievement gap is vast, with Grade 12 pass rates for black students often coming in at half that of white students.

3 - Psychosocial barriers

Compounding these financial and academic challenges are psychosocial hurdles. For most first generation students, the transition to university is an enormous leap across economic, social and racial barriers.

Some cannot afford to travel home during vacation and are effectively homeless when dormitories are closed. Some cannot afford to address basics such as the need for corrective eyeglasses. Some have to deal with family issues such as news that a family member has been diagnosed as HIV positive.

These issues are real and have the potential to knock promising students suddenly and needlessly off track.

Although well-designed student support and peer mentorship can have significant impact on students’ ultimate success, most universities offer very limited – if any – programmes to help students navigate the transition.

Pragmatic solutions

The good news is that a handful of ‘low-hanging fruit’ solutions can act as an initial stopgap to help many students achieve higher levels of success.


One of the more startling discoveries during the early days of the Dell Young Leaders programme was the thin margin of financial stability that can have a significant impact on students’ success.

For instance, in one case a student had so little cash that he had to choose between food and toiletries. Unable to bathe properly, he skipped class, which led to a downward academic spiral.

These day-to-day challenges – including cash-in-hand for meals – are common, and solutions are simple and cost-effective: A basic swipe card programme with relatively minimal monthly allowances allows students to access basic necessities.

The solution is relatively inexpensive, easily manageable, and makes a huge difference for this population. More significant awards, while necessary, may play a smaller role in some students’ day-to-day ability to remain in university.

Effective administration of this type of solution requires that universities know the profiles and needs of students they admit. They must understand the structures and resources needed to support hungry students, out-of-province students with no residence accommodation, and students who are HIV positive.

Simply ensuring that orientation for first-year students adequately introduces them to the full range of support resources would be a good first step.


Bridging programmes such as those offered by SciMathUS and UPP are critical to expanding the pool of students who are academically prepared to succeed in higher education. With track records of success, both models provide blueprints for viable approaches to helping underprepared students successfully enter higher education.

For example, SciMathUS, which has for the past three years seen a 100% matric pass rate among its students, takes a problem-based learning approach. In problem-based learning, students learn both core subjects and life skills through an integrated approach that focuses on helping students master both academic and problem-solving skills.

They learn how to handle stress, and how to manage their time and money. Themes such as motivation, counselling, sexuality and HIV-Aids, career planning and development, plus aspects related to the well-being of the total person, are also discussed.

The University of the Free State’s UPP, which is run in collaboration with institutions in the further education and training sector, is the only one-year access programme in South Africa that provides university credit recognition.

Since the programme’s 1992 inception, it has served more than 14,000 learners. Successful UPP students enter the second year of study in mainstream extended degree programmes at the university with full recognition of the two university module credits earned during the UPP access year.

Disadvantaged students who come to university without the benefit of bridging programmes can likewise benefit from a few simple supports: introductory computer classes, and training in time management, note-taking, stress management and study methods.

All need to be available to students who enter university without having been exposed to these skills at earlier levels.


A key element of the wrap-around support provided to Dell Young Leaders is case-specific problem-solving that is done by programme staff. The truth is that even prepared kids hit bumps along the way.

Assisting students with financial aid queries; obtaining housing for students who are homeless during the university vacation; working with students who have become pregnant or whose marriages end – all of these and more fall into the category of psychosocial support.

Interventions require time and dedicated programme staff. To fulfil this need, the foundation funds on-campus, university-employed counsellors at each partner institution.

To help ensure that students have the support to navigate complex psychosocial issues, universities must also ensure students are aware of and comfortable seeking out student wellness centres, while also ensuring that wellness centres are fully equipped to manage student trauma.

The road ahead

South African universities have opened their doors to disadvantaged students. They have an obligation to do more than simply wait to see whether they sink or swim once on campus.

How? By implementing practical solutions that support students in overcoming the three primary barriers that keep so many from graduating.

To date, the Dell Young Leaders programme has awarded bursaries to 165 students at the University of Cape Town and the University of Pretoria. The initiative recently celebrated its first two graduates.

These students are at the leading edge of a strategy designed to dramatically increase the number of educated, employable young people in South Africa.

Additional elements focus on a long-term strategy to foster a network of high quality, high impact schools at the primary and secondary level, to ensure a wider pipeline of students prepared to succeed in higher education without remediation.

Successful management of our Dell Young Leaders programme depends in no small part on technological tools that enable us to easily track a number of key indicators, academic and otherwise, of student well-being.

Part of the goal is to ensure we are able to spot red flags early, so that we can contact programme participants and consult with them if they appear to be at risk.

We are also seeking to gather data that can help us better understand what supports are most important to helping disadvantaged students overcome key barriers.

The question we are seeking to answer, for ourselves and others, is simple: “What does it take to get students with particular economic and demographic profiles, in university, to graduation and beyond?”

By answering this question and by modelling effective programmes, we hope to create a blueprint that institutions of higher education can and will use to close the economic and academic gaps that still divide our nation.

Dr Thashlin Govender is programme officer for education South Africa, at the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.

End note
1- HSRC Press (2008) Education and Poverty Reduction Strategies: Issues of policy coherence, Section 2: Poverty in Education, Student Pathways Study, M Letseka and M Breier, "Student Poverty in Higher Education: The impact of higher education drop out on poverty".