Collaboration Could Fix SA’s Higher Education Woes

leana de beer
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Education is a social investment that works to build economies. Unfortunately, due to structural inequalities and funding limitations, the higher education sector often struggles to meet its mandate for delivering accessible quality education for everyone. This remains one of the biggest stumbling blocks for South Africa’s economic recovery.

In order for the country to create an education system that is equitable and accessible to everyone, it requires collaboration – particularly within the edtech (education technology) environment. There is tremendous value in leveraging off of the private sectors strengths, resources and expertise.

This is the view of Leana de Beer, Chief Executive Officer of local student crowdfunding platform Feenix, who believes that collaboration within the edtech industry, as well as between edtech companies and universities is essential. “This should also be a key priority for the government’s education and digital strategies.”

While technology can help education leapfrog in several ways, de Beer says that it can only work if everyone collaborates to ensure that students have access to the resources needed to ensure that this supports their studies. This past year has shown us how important it is for us to do this.”

With the start of the Covid-19 national lockdown in 2020, the digital divide and need for equitable access was made very apparent, based on a research survey conducted by Feenix in 2020, de Beer says that access to data was a major barrier that prevented many South Africans from continuing their learning online during the national lockdown. “Our research found that 46% of university students were unequipped with the necessary tools such as data, laptops and computers, to complete their assignments or participate in online learning programmes.”

As a result of the growing digital divide, Feenix led a campaign in 2020 that successfully raised R3.4 million from the public to equip students with laptops and data during the lockdown. A key driver of its success was the collaboration between the organisation and the universities, which allowed Feenix to identify the rights students in need of the funding and resources.

De Beer explains that this is where edtech companies, like Feenix, have become a supportive solution to the issues the government and universities face. “Fundamental to this, is to demonstrate the value that collaboration with the private sector can have in making a much bigger impact. More importantly, how it can achieve the overarching goal of creating a more democratised education system. We can achieve so much more when we work together.”

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, a report published in 2020 by Deloitte found that science and technology have spawned new models for teaching and learning that will fundamentally alter the student experience. Education innovators are using technology and analytics to transform every facet of the university experience, from helping students make more informed educational investments to reducing the geographic and financial barriers to learning. 

The World Bank has noted how zero-rated educational websites and other technological tools have the potential to create the seismic shift needed to bridge the inequality gaps within the education sectors – particularly for those who live in rural communities, marginalized groups, students with disabilities, and students from poorer households.

“The massive advances in technology allow us to do this, ultimately helping us to ensure that all African learners are given the set of tools they need to succeed,” adds Schalk Burger, Managing Director and Co-Founder of Xhuma (meaning connect) – a technology company that uses its machine learning driven clinical career guidance and tertiary funds management modules to ensure that students pursue a career that is a natural fit for them and connects them with curated funding opportunities.

“With hybrid and online-based teaching models here to stay for the foreseeable future, the private sector and universities can work together to develop new tools and technologies that support greater access to the resources being developed to ensure continued learning,” de Beer explains.

Collaboration has a two-fold benefit. “For universities (and government), this can support their efforts towards achieving goals set out in both South Africa’s National Development Plan for 2030 and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4, both of which centre around ensuring inclusive, equitable and high-quality education for all. Joining the effort to improve the education system can yield huge benefit in return for the private sector,” de Beer explains.

South Africa’s economy and workforce is heavily reliant on the education sector to equip, upskill and ready youth for their careers. Providing opportunities for practical and experience-based learning is critical in addressing the current graduate performance gaps that are often seen within the private sector. Integral to this approach is building and expanding partnerships between academia and the private sector to create a more valuable education ecosystem that can benefit the economy and society as a whole.

“By tapping into the knowledge and expertise within the higher education system, the private sector can also fund research to help with innovation,” adds de Beer.

“There are so many facets of the higher education system that could do with more support from private sector innovators and industry leaders,” says de Beer. “If we are to meet increasing demands for an educated nation while also balancing quality and navigating changes in technology, increasing funding, and maintaining accountability frameworks, we urgently need all parties to connect and work together more.”

For more visit: Feenix.