An HE pathway created by the community, for the community

Saturday 16 March 2019 was an epic day in Hermanus, a small seaside town 122 km from Cape Town on the southern coast of South Africa. The Hermanus community turned out in force on a beautiful late summer’s morning to celebrate the opening of the Hermanus Varsity (HV) campus in the historic Old Synagogue building.

It was a manifestation of what can happen when a handful of people with vision take the initiative to address a community challenge.

Hermanus is a town of just under 50,000 people, surrounded by a number of smaller villages which came into being in the mid to late 19th century, primarily as fishing communities. Literally lying between the majestic Cape mountains and the ocean, and in the centre of the Cape Floral Kingdom, they quickly became a haven for South African holiday makers and later, foreign tourists.

They thronged to the area to view the whales which visit the bay each year and to engage in a variety of outdoor pursuits and the fine dining for which it is renowned. In the past 70 years or so, it has also become one of the major wine-producing regions of the Western Cape.

However, apart from tourism, wine production and, to a dwindling extent, aquaculture and fishing, the area engages in no major industrial activity. A large percentage of the population is retired, including a significant number of academics, but there is also a growing level of poverty and unemployment, especially among young people in the squatter camp at Hermanus, where 55,000 people live.

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Although there are several schools in the area, both private and public, some of them of an extremely high standard, the closest available tertiary education is in Stellenbosch and then Cape Town. By far the greatest number of local school-leavers can afford neither the university fees, nor accommodation or travel costs.

Following a period of serious political turmoil in Hermanus in mid-2018, including protests about land, housing and poverty, led, in the main, by frustrated young people with little hope of a meaningful future, three local residents got together to share a dream. One was the founder and director of a local education non-profit, one was the leader of a township youth project and the other was a retired professor of theology and founder of a local retreat centre.

Theo Kleynhans of Sparklekids, William Ntebe of the Zwelihle Youth Café and Emeritus Professor John de Gruchy of the Volmoed Retreat Centre wanted to create a facility where local youngsters could obtain a tertiary education without leaving home, which would equip them with the skills to earn a decent living in their own environment.

De Gruchy, a Christian theologian who is emeritus professor at the University of Cape Town and extraordinary professor at Stellenbosch University, recalls the night that Kleynhans knocked on his door and said: ‘Why don’t you start a university?’

At first he thought it wasn’t the right time because of all the unrest, but then he realised that was exactly why it was the right moment. He thought, “What if we develop a centre that became the hub to connect young people – or anyone with a thirst for skill learning and so forth – to the best institutions in the country?”

It would offer “distance education but with tutors from here. And I spoke here [at the University of Cape Town] and in Stellenbosch to the deputy vice-chancellors, two of them, and they all said this has got potential. So go for it.

“The first meeting we had we invited all the retired academics in Hermanus and there were 90 of them and 70 of them came and they said, ‘right, go for it’.”

Within an unbelievably short seven months, with encouragement from all sections of the community, the Varsity was launched in March 2019, finding a rented home in the historic synagogue building on the edge of the CBD, which had been standing empty for many years.

The model they planned to implement was simple: in partnership with several of the top universities in South Africa, Hermanus Varsity (HV) would present selected certified courses to local students.

The courses would largely be presented online at HV’s Hub, and the students, in small groups from two to five, would be supported throughout by tutors drawn from among the highly qualified retired academics in the town – “skilled academics, exactly the people you would need to start something like this. They all suddenly appeared from all over the place; some had come back from America where they had been professors; some from Australia. It’s the dream team”.

Should an internship be required, it would be organised locally.

To begin with, the courses would be at either higher certificate or diploma level, which could lead to bachelor degrees for those who might wish to proceed with their studies.

Importantly, the courses offered, either part-time or full-time, would equip the students with the skills required for local employment, or alternatively, entrepreneurial activity. The pilot course chosen was Local Economic Development (LED), presented in 10 modules over two years, in partnership with the University of Johannesburg.

At the launch of the Varsity, Dr Sindiwe Magona, South African writer, educationist and cultural ambassador, offered the following viewpoint: “Transformation occurs through education and it is at places of higher learning that we discover both ourselves and others. And it is through the transformation of one person at a time that we transform a nation.

“You need people who see a way out of the indignity of poverty through high quality education, determination and hard work; when so many people live lives of hopelessness and desperation, it has a direct effect on all of us. But in the establishment of this home-grown varsity, Hermanus has the opportunity to create a model for the rest of the country to follow.”

By the end of 2019, the live-wire CEO of HV, Delana Finlayson was left feeling somewhat shell-shocked, but was already looking forward to the year ahead.

“It was actually completely ridiculous to think we could do it. But here we are at the end of 2019 and it’s a reality,” she said at the time. “Our first batch of students has just been certificated and we’re on track to achieving even greater things in 2020.

“When I look back on this year, I’m in awe. I think one of the most exciting factors has been the enormous excitement and energy that all the participants have brought to the project. We are all passionate about making it work.”

Having completed the first two modules of the 10-module higher certificate LED course offered by the University of Johannesburg, Finlayson was thrilled that the 34-student cohort achieved an average pass rate of 80%, which she attributed to a large extent to the ground-breaking contribution made by the tutors.

She said they planned to carry on with the remaining eight modules in 2020, and those students who elected to complete them would emerge with a basic business tool kit, including accounting, marketing and business communications, among others. She believed they would be in a position to add value to any Hermanus business which employed them, or they could start their own businesses.

As a registered trust, HV is entirely privately funded. It receives no government subsidy and has, in fact, received no encouragement or assistance of any kind from the authorities. It seems clear that most of its students in the foreseeable future will require bursaries.

Despite the fact that the course fees are way below what they would pay at one of the established tertiary education institutions, the average household income in this area would prohibit their participating in any of the courses on offer at HV.

Although the students or their families are required to make a contribution, the Varsity carries the heavy burden of raising sufficient funds to cover bursaries for them.

Apart from a single generous grant of seed money to get HV up and running, it relies on ongoing support from the citizens of Hermanus and grants from private philanthropic foundations. By keeping its staff numbers down to a minimum and with the assistance of a large team of volunteers, mainly retired academic tutors, it has managed to operate efficiently within a lean academic and administrative budget.

However, towards the end of its first year of existence in 2019, the Varsity received a blow: the owner of their Hub (the old synagogue) had gone into liquidation and it would probably be only a matter of time before they would have to vacate the building.

Then, in January 2020, out of the blue yonder stepped a South African-born Canadian visitor to the town who was so moved by the story of the Varsity’s genesis that he bought the building.

At roughly the same time, in endorsement of the project, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and his wife, Leah, endowed a Scholarship for Excellence for Hermanus Varsity students. It all seemed like a miracle.

Time to adapt or die

With such a good start, a new batch of 120 students registered for both the existing LED course and a new full-time environmental law enforcement course to be launched in 2020, and the year seemed set for an exciting leap forward. Then along came COVID-19 and lockdown. And for the whole enterprise, it was adapt or die.

One would have thought that a system which is largely built around online education would be designed to deal with exactly such circumstances, but it soon became apparent that there were unexpected complications.

“We were reminded just how crucial our tutors are to the success of the project,” explains Finlayson. “The role they play goes way beyond just assisting students with their course material; it’s about relationships and motivation and engagement.

“In addition, most of the students don’t have their own computers; they use those at the Hub. So now they had to download the material on their cell phones and we suddenly became aware that when it came to a choice between buying a loaf of bread and an additional data bundle, clearly they would buy the bread.”

So the first priority had to be to ensure that the students had access to food. They directed them to the Food Bank and many of the tutors on their own initiative supplied members of their groups with food vouchers and data.

They also discovered a student resource website which provided free data for students on a reverse-charge model, which, however, became very expensive for the Varsity.

“One of the most useful lessons we learnt from the lockdown was the need to be agile,” says Finlayson. “So we completely restructured our operational framework, so that it was less rigid and re-imagined the academic direction we wanted to take from here on. We ended up grateful for this unexpected gift of time and it was great to discover that we have the adaptability and the resilience to innovate at short notice. That’s been very self-affirming.”

One of their first interventions at the start of lockdown was to offer support to local matric students, as well as those in Grades 10 and 11 who were missing school. They tapped into a telematic system operated by Stellenbosch University which offers review packages for all the main Grade 12 subjects. Live presentations are given in real time by a panel of what Finlayson refers to as “brilliant, passionate and inspirational teachers”. These are interactive sessions, but they are also available in recorded form.

Students were able to log into them from home, but if they did so from the Varsity Hub, there were local facilitators on hand (specialists in the particular subject being covered), who could lead a discussion on the work or clarify issues.

An aspect of their restructuring process was the creation of a number of schools to accommodate the various courses they were planning to introduce. These were business leadership (including courses like project management), environmental studies (including law enforcement and conservation, with an internship at CapeNature), aquaculture (with courses designed by Stellenbosch University), agro-ecology, music and visual arts, and education.

A fully-equipped career guidance centre has also recently been opened which offers psychometric testing and career counselling to both high school pupils and school-leavers.

Another new school is that of digital studies, which will focus on courses which provide young people with the practical skills to equip them for local employment. The courses have been divided into four streams: digital project management, digital technology, data analytics and digital content.

Key achievement

One of their most satisfying achievements is currently being celebrated. Despite the difficulties of lockdown, 31 students were able to complete a year-long course in criminal law enforcement in the environmental sector which was presented in partnership with Nelson Mandela University.

This was followed by a six-week internship, during which they were required, in small groups, to patrol 40 km of the local coastline and collect and process digital data of significance to the marine environment. This included anything from measuring and describing the fish caught by fishermen, to beach strandings, pollution, the movement of birds and weather conditions.

According to Kirsten Neke, co-ordinator at HV’s school of environmental studies: “This will be the first time such an intensive study of our coastline has been undertaken and, as such, the data gathered will be of immense importance in shaping future conservation planning.”

An even more exciting spin-off for some of the students is that they have undergone additional training and will act as environmental guides for visitors to the area during the summer season, taking them hiking in the fynbos-covered mountains and along the coastal path which stretches from one end of Hermanus to the other. The money they earn will go towards the Varsity bursary fund.

The role Hermanus Varsity plays in the greater Hermanus community is vital, according to Michael de Lange, the chief operating officer of FishFORCE, at the Centre for Law in Action, Nelson Mandela University, not just to create opportunities for further education for students, but also for community development as a whole.

“I see the kind of partnership we have with Hermanus Varsity as an expanding market for the future, where especially smaller universities are able to reach out to communities like this one. Such linkages with local structures and networks on an equal partnership basis are absolutely important to provide easier access to higher education for young people.”

Under these circumstances, he adds, it is also possible to undertake joint projects such as the one Nelson Mandela University (NMU) has with the institution in its criminal law enforcement programme.

“With NMU’s focus on the oceans’ economy, our partnership is perfectly aligned. If HV is able to build similar partnerships with other universities around the country, it can only spell progress for the local community,” De Lange said.

Brimming with plans

As always, Delana Finlayson is brimming with plans for 2021. In addition to their existing courses, they will add a bachelor degree in education and a higher certificate in early childhood development, for both of which they have been inundated with applications.

In an attempt to meet the needs of local businesses and encourage their financial buy in, they will also be focusing on courses like digital technology and digital content (web design, communications, photography and videography). Some of these courses may be presented on a course/internship basis, with students being employed part-time and simultaneously completing their Varsity course.

They’re also planning to introduce a course on aquaculture presented by Stellenbosch University, and on placing a strong emphasis on the arts.

As Finlayson points out: “Our area abounds in art practitioners of all kinds, but particularly the visual arts and music, and there is a wealth of talent in our young people, just waiting to be discovered and given the chance to develop.”

They have an agreement with a local non-profit with an outstanding track record to undertake the practical aspect of the course, and together they are planning to start the region’s first fully-fledged orchestra, comprising professional musicians and students.

“As you can see, we have no shortage of ideas and there is certainly no lack of interest from local youngsters,” says Finlayson. “Our biggest bugbear is funding. So for now, we will have to focus on the quality of our teaching and not the quantity of students we can enrol – until a fairy godmother falls into our lap.”

More information about Hermanus Varsity can be found on its website.