With Grade 12 learners from across the county in the full throes of writing their matric examination, one inevitably wonders about 2019 and where those who pass successfully, will find themselves.

The announcement of subsidised free education last year has increased learners’ access to higher education. However, the question we should ask is no longer how these learners enter institutions of higher learning, but how they exit successfully – within the minimum time and with an appropriate qualification that will enable them to start earning an income and contribute to the economy.

I believe universities have a critical role to play in ensuring their own students’ success. It often involves taking a step back and getting actively involved in the schools that supply us with a new cohort of first-year students annually. We should not wait until they reach our campuses to identify academic obstacles; we should be proactive and do what we can to help improve our school systems.

At the University of the Free State, we have established Social Responsibility Enterprises (SRE) on our South Campus in Bloemfontein, which focus on the mentoring of teachers in order to make a sustainable impact. A total of 78 schools in the Free State, Mpumalanga, and the Eastern Cape benefit from this programme. SRE mentors are assisting school principals with school management, while teachers in Mathematics, Physical Science, Accounting, and English as language of learning are assisted in mastering curriculum content, pedagogy, and classroom management.

Mentors visit schools and share knowledge, extra material, and technology to improve the standard of teaching. The impact has been significant. Matric results, Mathematics pass rates, and Physical Science pass rates have improved dramatically in these schools. We also identify learners with the potential to get access to university (i.e. first-generation students) and assist them through extra classes and in applying for tertiary education and bursaries.

Another important initiative is the Internet Broadcast Project (IBP), established on our South Campus seven years ago. Our aim is to take quality education to all learners across the Free State, regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds and the standard of education at their schools. Schools are equipped with internet broadcasting devices, and lessons by top-qualified presenters in a studio are transmitted live to learners. They also have an opportunity to interact with these presenters.  Currently, the departments of Education in three provinces (including the Western Cape) are also considering the implementation of the IBP as part of their interventions in schools.

A total of 71 000 learners in 83 different schools are currently reached through this project every week – and the impact is far-reaching. The Free State has delivered the best matric results in the country for the past two years. Last year, the Free State MEC for Education, Tate Makgoe, made special mention of the IBP for the profound role it played in this achievement.

However, preparing learners for access to higher education is not enough; the crucial factor is how they exit successfully. The university’s Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL) is continuously developing data analytics to better understand our students and to help them navigate their studies. Making use of international funding, CTL is playing a leading role nationally to develop academic advising (using predictive data analytics) that helps students match their studies with their career and life goals.

One of the main factors that has been found to inhibit student performance, is food insecurity. Research has shown this to be a challenge faced by universities across the world. In South Africa, our institutions of higher learning have risen to this challenge, responding with efforts in various forms. At the University of the Free State, the No Student Hungry initiative (NSH) was launched in 2011. A research study conducted by our Department of Nutrition and Dietetics indicated that 59% of the student population suffer from food insecurity. Many of these students eventually drop out of higher education because of the need to earn an income. The NHS provides our students in need with modest food allowances and daily access to one balanced meal. Students are selected in terms of financial need, academic performance, participation in student life, and a commitment to giving back to the community. The programme allows students to focus on their studies without worrying about their next meal, thus increasing their chances to excel academically and ultimately obtain their degrees.  Since its inception, close to a thousand students have been assisted by this initiative and have given back nearly 37 000 community hours to South African communities.

Currently, the NSH programme is enhanced through the development of an institutional endowment fund aimed at raising capital from business, industry, and the private sector. This provides an opportunity for these sectors to become involved and support the challenge of food security among students, thereby supplementing the efforts of the university and government.

Teamwork such as this is needed on all levels to transform the educational landscape in our country. As institutions of higher learning, we need to increasingly find innovative ways to become involved in the broader communities we serve – beyond our academic curricula.

In this way, we will finally be able to move beyond the question of access that has been dominating discourse and demonstration for so long and focus more specifically on ensuring that our students successfully exit the post-school system.

Professor Francis Petersen is the UFS Rector and Vice-Chancellor. 

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