The year 2016 opened to chaos: wildfires, a string of celebrity deaths, drought, political turmoil and – to no one’s surprise – renewed student protests. But the latter have inspired at least a handful of citizen funding initiatives that aim to relieve the burden on as many aspiring students as possible. MARELISE VAN DER MERWE found out more about one that’s launching next week.
“It’s easy to slip into an attitude of despondency or fear. But crisis and uncertainty is at best inconvenient, and at its worst crippling to a society that has a long history of instability,” says Patrick Schofield, the brains behind FundaFuture, a tertiary education crowdfunding platform set to launch in South Africa next week.
Schofield is referring to #FeesMustFall, and the uncertainty surrounding the funding shortfalls for struggling students, not to mention concerns over the implications of ongoing protests for students and university management alike.
Earlier this week, Gauteng vice-chancellors said that universities were spending as much as R2 million per month on increased security since the protests began – which, depending on your perspective, could be viewed as either a violation of student rights or an indication of violations by the protestors. But whichever side of the fence you’re on, you’re likely to agree it is unsustainable.
At the start of 2016, there were already concerns that a continued lack of funds would fuel more protests, and sure enough, the university year at Wits in particular kicked off with some heated exchanges between students and university management. The Universities of Pretoria and Johannesburg were not immune either. Following some tense days at Wits, management and the SRC eventually struck a deal over fees. On campuses in other parts of the country, where registration is yet to take place, the risk of more protests remains.
On Wednesday, Higher Education and Training Minister, Blade Nzimande, confirmed that the #FeesMustFall protests had cost universities R150 million so far. A visibly worried Nzimande cautioned students to keep protests peaceful. “We cannot afford any more damage to property,” he urged.
In this climate, it is perhaps unsurprising that Schofield is calling for a little optimism and, further, the practical solution of financial assistance. If his name sounds familiar, that’s because he’s also the owner of Thundafund and Backabuddy , the “parent” initiative behind FundaFuture.
FundaFuture is one of a number of funding initiatives that have sprung up to assist students, in particular those who are not rich enough to pay for their own studies, and not poor enough to qualify for grants through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). These include The Bursary Network, which allows anyone – private or corporate – to contribute towards sponsoring students from as little as R100 and, at the time of writing, had 236 donors on its network. Singer Simphiwe Dana has also founded the fairly well-known #IWantToStudy drive, which uses social media to share create awareness of students with a shortage of funds but a large store of motivation. Students bid by telling their stories and posting their results. A number of corporate and individual initiatives have also evolved.
“It’s great. It’s not us working against each other,” says Lize Theron, FundaFuture’s Creative Project Manager. “The reality is there has always been this need. We saw #FeesMustFall as a perfect vehicle to raise funds for students who can’t afford to study but don’t necessarily qualify for a grant.”
Although a number of these initiatives have evolved, however, the cost of tertiary education means the number of students still needing assistance remains staggering. The Bursary Network, for instance, has to date been able to assist just seven students, despite arguably faring fairly well in terms of membership and donations. For students eligible for grants, too, there is cause for concern; Nzimande’s spokesperson earlier confirmed a forensic investigation into allegations that millions of rands intended for tertiary education funding had been “lost“.
The idea behind FundaFuture, say Schofield and Theron, is to pay it forward – so that graduates who are successful and become economically active are then able to in turn sponsor other students at a later stage, and so forth. At this stage the project is in its pilot phase, so it will launch on 26 January and run until April 2016, but the goal is to have it run annually.
So how does it work? Fairly simple. The goal is ambitious; to fund 200 students per university per year (amounting to R10 million per university). Interested donors sign up to become “Champions”, which then receive their own fundraising pages. The idea is then to drive their own fundraising campaigns, via their own networks, but using the toolkits, resources and systems provided by FundaFuture.
Overheads are kept to a minimum by utilising existing systems. So, for instance, the money that is raised is donated directly to the financial aid board of the donor’s nominated university. The university then makes the decision of which student the financial aid goes to. This, says Theron, eliminates the need for audits on FundaFuture’s side, as universities’ financial aid boards already have to go through auditing processes. Ultimately, this means that the maximum of funds can go to the beneficiaries. There’s also an alternative stream via BackaBuddy that allows students to be their own champions; to drive their own crowdfunding campaigns.
Active citizenry has a vital role to play. But isn’t there the risk that government and universities will rely on it too heavily? “I guess that’s a matter of opinion,” says Theron. “We don’t want to get involved on a political level. The gap is so big that our efforts will be a drop in the ocean. We don’t want to sit back and let things happen for us – we want to help in however big or small a way we can. We want to be active citizens. It’s up to all of us to see what’s in our power to do.”
The one drawback of launching in the chaos of #FeesMustFall, she says, is that for some, the protests have a negative connotation. “We want this to be a positive thing. It’s something that is relevant – it will always be relevant.” DM
Photo: A Marikana resident watches the sunrise as students walk to school on South Africa’s Platinum Belt, June 13, 2014. REUTERS/Skyler Reid