Funding for cash-strapped students goes digital

The grant aims to subsidise the wages of young workers entering the job market. Students at the University of North West. (Photo: Hannelie Coetzee, MCSA)
The grant aims to subsidise the wages of young workers entering the job market. Students at the University of North West. (Photo: Hannelie Coetzee, MCSA)

Johannesburg – A tertiary education crowdfunding Trust, along with the support of Standard Bank, launched their official digital platform in Rosebank, Johannesburg on Tuesday.

The Feenix Trust, built on a crowdfunding platform called Fundular, brings together students in need of financial assistance and willing donors. It is aimed at addressing the issue of lack of access to education currently facing South Africa by providing a link to students to acquire funding.

“Crowd-funding is not new, but when a bank gets involved in an initiative like this, we are able to pull our resources, put some real weight behind something like this, [and] build something that is absolutely sustainable,” said Jayshree Naidoo, interim CEO of the Feenix Trust.

“The power of crowdsourcing as a viable solution to boosting educational funding channels is taking off worldwide and we are excited to now be able to take part in this exciting journey in SA.”

Naidoo explained that this initiative is aimed at boosting channels, not replacing or competing with channels that currently exist such as merit-based scholarships and bursaries, adding that it came without the burden of the administration that comes with a bursary.

She said that 94% of households in South Africa earn less than R600 000 per annum, with the average fee students have to pay coming to R60 000 per annum, while 70% of the population earn under R70 000 per annum. This gap needs to be filled, she said.
In October 2015, a movement called #FeesMustFall swept through campuses nationwide, with students calling for fees to fall as they were limiting the right to education for those who could not afford it.

Naidoo said she hoped this initiative would disrupt the fee crisis and the way people think about funding students by making them think about how they could make a meaningful impact in other people’s lives.

She said that Feenix is intended to support the so-called missing middle students who fall through the cracks of government assistance and corporate sponsorship.

While removing a student’s financial burden, Naidoo said the initiative would ultimately contribute to South Africa’s economic growth.

Standard Bank’s main role is to retain and manage the funds from donors, taking a 5% portion of the donation to cover their operational costs. They have committed to the project for the next 36 months, or until such a time as the project is self-sustaining, Naidoo said.

Naidoo explained that the project is still in its pilot stage, but in two weeks, the staff at Standard Bank had managed to raise over R120 000, with over 130 student profiles registered and over 600 still being verified. Naidoo said that there are currently four candidates who are fully funded.

Naidoo stressed that verification checks on both donors and candidates were crucial, and were usually undertaken before a student’s profile is uploaded. She said that this was to ensure that every candidate requiring funding was a deserving candidate verified against relevant databases made available to Feenix by Standard Bank’s fraud protection and sanctions departments.

“Fees are also paid directly to universities, not the student, which means students won’t be able to have access to the money for anything other than its intended purpose,” said Naidoo to a full meeting room at 54 on Bath Hotel in Rosebank.

Because Feenix is a crowdfunding initiative, students are not subject to restrictions such as academic performance, a specific qualification, demographic, country of origin or university. They are also not obligated to pay back the money.

“The fees cover everything from tuition to accommodation, and books. We don’t take pass rates into consideration, we just want the students to not be burdened by the onus of having to pay for fees, but rather focus on finishing their academic career,” said Naidoo, saying funding was dependent on the fees statement from universities.

Naidoo highlighted that the idea also presented a good opportunity for other large corporates to crowd in, saying that a competitor bank had already seen the feasibility in the idea, and had said that they would potentially consider some students for their respective graduate programme.

Naidoo said there were currently talks about making the idea rewards-based, with donors receiving rewards, and increasing their black economic empowerment (BEE) scores for donating. She said there were many programmes in place to ensure that many students get to benefit from the initiative, including activations on campuses.

“We are currently only affiliated with 14 out of the 26 public universities because this was a pilot project, but we are hoping to cover all 26 by August this year,” Naidoo said.

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