As the academic year draws to a close, many young learners and their families across South Africa will be planning for a transition from primary school to high school. Some of these learners may show great promise — whether academically, or in a particular creative or athletic talent, or simply through their tenacity to survive in a system built to keep them silenced — but may lack the financial means to pursue the education that they need to fulfil this potential.
These young people look to educational scholarships and bursaries in the hopes of bridging the gap between their personal circumstances and a quality education.
Due in part to the limited funding available compared to the number of aspiring beneficiaries, these scholarships are often quite competitive, a fact that is reflected in their complex recruitment process. One representative scholarship scheme requires candidates to submit eight documents evidencing their academics, financial need, and motivation, including no less than three letters (written by the applicant, their school principal, and their parent/guardian). And that is just for the initial application; children who progress through the multi-stage recruitment processes will sit for exams, interviews, and more.
The hoops that these scholarships applicants are required to jump through are staggeringly elaborate, and they keep getting more arbitrary with every passing year.
This recruitment process reinforces a power dynamic that greatly favours the funders and administrators of the scholarships. Funders decide exactly which (often arbitrary) cut-offs candidates are required to meet in order to be eligible in a given year. Administrators decide how candidates will be assessed, when and where they need to show up, and who will evaluate them.
These guidelines are paradoxical, at once rigid and flexible: applicants that miss a form or do not have the prerequisite scores are dropped from consideration, whereas administrators often shift goalposts and deadlines with little justification offered. Candidates, it is made clear, must fall in line or risk being cut.
The current recruitment system, where administrators can choose to change requirements or guidelines at short notice and with little transparency, does not empower aspiring scholars. Why should scholars and their families scramble to accommodate last-minute changes to a recruitment event, when scholarships rarely (if ever) make the same concessions for applicants?
While parents and guardians want to support their children in achieving their dreams, it may not always be possible for a parent to change work shifts or arrange for transportation to take their child to an interview on Saturday for which they are notified on Wednesday. Changes in the recruitment process at the discretion of the administrators imply that the administrators’ time is more valuable than that of the scholars.
Given that many of these scholarships are provided by foreign funders and delivered by white, upper-class executives, this disbalance also furthers a racialised dichotomy between “the African child in need” and “the white saviour”. This power differential feeds into the same issues of institutional access against which these young learners are trying to do battle.
Available spaces are limited, and the recruitment process is a substantial undertaking for those administering these programmes. I am not suggesting that scholarships must relax their admission criteria or overwork recruitment staff by substantially increasing scrutiny for individual applicants.
Rather, deliberate effort must be made to introduce some balance in the power dynamic between scholars and funders. Selection criteria, assessment stages, and deadlines should be made available to candidates as early in the application process as possible. Deviations from the published process, such as alterations in cut-offs or delayed notification of learners who progress to the next stage should be avoided when possible, and justified to stakeholders when necessary. Boards of trustees or similar governing bodies may play a critical role in this process of holding administrators of educational scholarships accountable to their beneficiaries.
There is also an urgent need to reconsider the kinds of evaluation processes through which we put scholarship applicants. Most programmes conduct interviews with a proportion of candidates, which is helpful in obtaining a holistic view of the candidate.
However, some scholarships have begun to use tools such as psychometric testing as part of the recruitment process. There is little scientific evidence to suggest that such tools predict future academic or professional success. Furthermore, psychological assessments in recruitment can facilitate discriminatory or biased selection.
At present, a candidate may secure a spot in the next stage of the recruitment process because, for instance, they scored higher on a vague measure of “learning potential” than another candidate. Perhaps in future, then, scholarships might deny applicants by screening for predisposition to mental health issues such as depression?
Even though such dystopian outcomes may seem far-fetched to some, it is crucial that we safeguard against them by redefining the criteria that are used to assess and compare candidates. We must reconsider evaluating applicants’ psychological wellbeing or expecting candidates to lay out their personal histories for anonymous assessment committees.
Moreover, we need to step away from using “resilience” or “entrepreneurship” as key defining features of scholars. Resilience is a product of trauma, and entrepreneurship develops out of necessity; neither should be expected of children.
Instead, there is an opportunity to focus on empowering children who are passionate, who exhibit kindness, or who take initiative. These qualities, while somewhat more difficult to quantify via psychometric tools, can be assessed instead by building a relationship with applicants. This may be achieved by additional interviews or unstructured interactive hours replacing psychometric testing. Although this might mean some extra work for evaluators, programmes will likely benefit in the long-term from sustainable, meaningful relationships with their scholars being established right from the beginning.
Approaching scholarship recruitment with greater intentionality will nurture scholars’ individual voice, passion, and empathy.
I know intimately the despair that stems from being a driven and ambitious young person, only to find that financial aid opportunities require you to fit a rigid caricature. As a Thomas J Watson Fellow, an Earlham College Presidential Honours Scholar, and a DLF Public School High Achievers’ Scholarship recipient, I have navigated the entirety of my educational career as a “scholarship kid”.
Even today, I am only able to pursue a PhD because my fees and expenses at the University of Edinburgh are covered by a Wellcome Trust studentship. Despite having some degree of privilege, I had to learn at a very early age to navigate a decidedly unequal system — and jump through numerous hoops to prove that I could assimilate into that very system — to win myself a seat at the proverbial table. Given these experiences, I can empathise deeply with the thousands of young people across the nation who aspire to receive the finest education, only to find numerous systemic barriers in their way.
These learners work hard to demonstrate their potential. Let us, in turn, rethink the ways in which we evaluate them and commit to breaking down these skewed power dynamics. Educational scholarships must be an equal partnership between funders, administrators, and beneficiaries: only then can they truly empower young people to fulfil their potential. DM