Major donation to enhance student success at SA universities

12 Nov 2021 | By Desmond Thompson
12 Nov 2021 | By Desmond Thompson

This investment marks the third iteration of funding for the Siyaphumelela (‘We succeed’ in isiXhosa) network, an initiative dedicated to transforming how universities serve students to improve academic outcomes.

The latest round of funding represents a significant expansion for Siyaphumelela, which will now reach approximately 945,000 students – nearly 90% of the total enrolment at South African public universities, the foundation said in a press release on 18 June.

Jenny Glennie, executive director of the South African Institute for Distance Education (SAIDE), the non-profit organisation that will continue to coordinate Siyaphumelela, welcomed the announcement.

“We are hugely grateful to the Kresge Foundation … and extremely proud to have built this collaborative and vibrant network of universities committed to student success,” she said.

Long-term commitment

South Africa is the only place where the Kresge Foundation is active outside of the United States (US). It began funding South African universities in 1989. To date, Kresge has invested about US$40 million in promoting South African postsecondary access and success – especially improving student graduation rates.

“We remain committed to South Africa and its future. When you are tackling systemic challenges, especially issues that manifested over generations, it doesn’t take one, two or even three grant cycles to adequately address those issues. Systemic change requires time and intentionality to succeed,” Kresge’s Bill Moses said.

Tackling inequities

University World News reported in December 2023 that, although student access to South African universities has been broadened significantly since the dawn of a new political dispensation in the country in 1994, student success has lagged. Marked disparities persist in graduate outcomes, with higher drop-out and lower throughput rates among black African and coloured students compared to their white and Indian or Asian peers.

In 2014, following extensive engagement with South Africa’s higher education sector and its priorities, Kresge formally launched the Siyaphumelela initiative to encourage the use of data analytics to enhance student success at public universities in the country.

Aims and objectives

Complementing similar Kresge efforts in the US, Siyaphumelela aims to:

• Establish a more student-centred culture in South Africa’s higher education system to improve student success;

• Achieve annual targets to improve retention, course success and throughput rates for degrees and diplomas, and eliminate differences based on race, gender and socio-economic status;

• Improve institutional capacity to collect and use student data for evidence-based decision-making to improve student success across the South African higher education system;

• Consolidate and share evidence-based student success efforts on a national scale, including supporting students, use of data, teaching and learning, and transforming institutions; and

• Embed the student voice in student success initiatives and approaches.

Expanding the network

The Siyaphumelela network has grown considerably over the past decade.

Five universities were grantees in the first phase, seven in the second phase (with a further 10 joining as participants or associates), and now, 20 of South Africa’s 26 public universities are direct institutional grantees.

According to the request-for-proposal document distributed to vice-chancellors (VCs) in November last year, institutions selected to become part of the network will receive grants totalling between ZAR2.6 million (about US$144,000) and ZAR3.9 million over three years.

Notably, Siyaphumelela ‘3.0’ – as the new iteration has been dubbed – now includes five historically disadvantaged institutions, up from one in the previous round.

Reactions from newbies

University World News received comments from three new members of the network.

“We are elated,” Yonela Tukwayo, spokesperson of Walter Sisulu University (WSU) in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, said.

“Siyaphumelela allows us to form connections with other universities that have successfully navigated the challenges we are facing, and they can learn from areas where we excel,” she added.

One of South Africa’s leading higher education institutions, Stellenbosch University (SU) in the Western Cape province, will be joining Siyaphumelela for the first time.

“This initiative gives us an opportunity to participate with the rest of the higher education system, which means learning from others. So, it’s an exercise, not only in collaboration, but also in humility, which is not a bad thing,” Dr Lis Lange, SU acting senior director for learning and teaching enhancement, said.

She had been exposed to Siyaphumelela in positions she previously held at the universities of the Free State and Cape Town respectively, and says she “worked hard” to also make her new institution part of the network. She joined SU a year ago as a special adviser to Professor Deresh Ramjugernath, the deputy vice-chancellor of learning and teaching.

“Student success is one of our strategic areas, but that commitment has to be translated into changing our institutional culture,” Lange said.

“I think we are moving in the right direction. At our annual teaching and learning conference later this year, the theme will be student success and, for the first time ever, we will have a student panel,” she added.

Professor Pamela Dube, the vice-chancellor and principal of the Central University of Technology (CUT) in the Free State province, said her institution was “committed to introducing a more holistic approach to student support”.

When she joined CUT in January 2023, she brought experience of participating in Siyaphumelela with her from her previous employers, the universities of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and the Western Cape (UWC) respectively. Both institutions will be continuing as members of the network.

An evidence-based approach

In an exclusive interview with University World News from Troy, Michigan, where the Kresge Foundation is based, Moses, who is managing director of Kresge’s Education Programme, explained the thinking behind the Siyaphumelela approach.

“Traditionally, higher education was a matter of ‘sink or swim’. If you sank, it was attributed to a lack of personal commitment to your studies, or bad time management, or maybe that you weren’t that bright.

“But some students have just not received the same opportunities as others, so they need support to flourish. Our job is to figure out how to help them succeed, he said.

“The problem is that, sometimes, universities don’t use evidence-based decision-making. They use gut-based, experience-based methods. There’s a role for that, but you need to understand what’s actually happening so that you can create solutions for the problems students face in reality.

“That’s what we promote – helping universities collect the right data, examine it to identify problems, and then think about how they might solve those problems using evidence-based and student-centred solutions.”

Twin milestones

Moses will be attending the annual Siyaphumelela Conference, taking place in Johannesburg from 25 to 28 June. The event provides a platform for key South African role-players and international experts in student success to discuss evidence-based practices and national systemic interventions.

At the conference, the Siyaphumelela initiative will celebrate its 10th anniversary, and give recognition to the support it has received from the Kresge Foundation throughout this journey.

2024 is also a milestone year for the Kresge Foundation, which was founded a century ago in Detroit by Sebastian S Kresge of Kmart fame.

Moses finds his involvement with Siyaphumelela “very gratifying”.

“I first visited South Africa many years ago during apartheid and have been back countless times. It’s exciting to see that we can play a small role in catalysing leadership in universities to improve student success,” he said.