UK student ambition exported to South Africa's townships

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education and family correspondent

Image caption,
The award-winning Brilliant Club. developed for poor students in the UK, is being piloted in South Africa

A project to get more disadvantaged youngsters in the UK to apply to leading universities is being applied to schools in South Africa's townships.

The Brilliant Club is an award-winning scheme that puts PhD students into schools in the UK, with the aim of teaching new skills, raising aspirations and making university seem a more attainable goal.

In South Africa, operating as AccessEd, it has completed a pilot year in 16 schools and two youth centres, with pupils aged about 13 to 15.

In the UK, the big divide in access to university is social background. Young people from wealthy families are much more likely to go to university than poorer youngsters.

University gap

This is also the case in South Africa - but with the big overlaying factor of race casting a post-apartheid shadow.

Image caption,
Pupils get extra lessons with postgraduate students, showing them university is in reach

The university access rate for white teenagers is over 40%, for their black counterparts it is below 10%.

Programme director Rajbir Hazelwood says that as well as academic challenges, there are some big practical difficulties to overcome.

In townships such as Philippi in Cape Town and Alexandra in Johannesburg, the problems can be about the lack of basic infrastructure and "classrooms fit for purpose".

In Philippi, she says: "The majority of our pupils had no access to ICT [information and communications technology].

"With basic needs not met, these under-resourced schools face an upward struggle in supporting their pupils in the matriculation exams which allow you to go to university in South Africa."

Ms Hazelwood adds that university dropout rates are very high in South Africa, as much as 40%.

Image caption,
Putting young people in the frame for university

While the focus of the project in the UK is giving young people the confidence to apply, in South Africa they have to give their students the "academic and social skills" needed to complete their degrees.

But in both the UK and in South Africa, a key part of this project has been to give disadvantaged youngsters a sense of intellectual challenge, inspiring them to think beyond their immediate horizons.

The postgraduate students working with the project run tutorials and teach university-style courses, with assignments and marking.

In South Africa, for those who successfully finish the programme, the graduation event is to go to a university and see, perhaps for the first time, what it's like to be a student and to show that it's an accessible target.

Unequal chances

It's a chance for the university too to talk to young people about how they might take the next steps and what they will need to get on to a degree course.

Image caption,
When pupils complete the course, they go on a visit to university to find about life as a student

University access in South Africa is also highly political, with protests that poor, black youngsters are still not getting their fair chances, either through cost or inadequacies in their school-level education.

Last month, responding to such dissatisfaction, the president, Jacob Zuma, promised free higher education for poorer students, with grants covering fees to be phased in from this year.

But this has raised questions about whether the university system has the capacity for many more students and how this will be delivered.

Although continents apart, the projects in the UK and South Africa both reflect the significance of getting young people into university.

"Graduates have better employment prospects and earning power, better health and wellbeing and better civic engagement," says the impact report on AccessEd's pilot phase.

But access to becoming a graduate remains deeply unequal.

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