Major research project into the contribution of holistic support towards student success

Penny Morrell
Lead Researcher

The DG Murray Trust, a long-standing REAP donor, approved the reallocation of funds originally earmarked for the establishment of a research and advocacy unit, for a major research project described below. Penny Morrell, an independent contractor who conducted a major programme evaluation for REAP in 2016, has been appointed as the lead researcher, supervised by Russell Davies, REAP Director. 

Aims & objectives of the research

  • To outline the current Higher Education context in relation to throughput, and the factors that are thought to undermine success, particularly of students from disadvantaged backgrounds;
  • To clarify what is meant by ‘student success’ – working from the premise that it is ultimately about an individual’s ability to operate fruitfully within society for personal, family and public good; and
  • To describe the barriers to success and the forms these take – discerning which are attributable to simply being young in a new environment and which are caused or exacerbated by disadvantage.


Having provided an overview of the barriers to success produced by disadvantage in South Africa, this research will, then:

  • identify the interventions that comprise wraparound support that might enable students to operate effectively within the current system – discerning the difference they make and why;
  • discuss which of these interventions are relatively under-developed in the higher education sector and how this may be addressed, with particular reference to the bursary support provider sector.

Audience of the research

  • This research is both internally and externally focussed.

    • Internally it provides the bursary provider sector with a space to reflect on the best use of its resources towards making the biggest difference to student success.
    • Externally it might intentionally feed into current national initiatives focussing on student success (like USAf’s Support Student Success Forum), as well as other policy conversations in the higher education sector. 
    • It will also engage with various collegial fora – in both the making and disseminating of ideas. This could also include the now annual Supporting Student Success conference.


    The intention is that the research findings – and process – will contribute at various levels to the thinking about the constituent parts that support success of disadvantaged students in particular.

    As such, its aim, at least initially, is more strategic than advocacy, though we believe it will contribute to a more structural and systemic debate around student success.

The bursary provider sector

The introduction in 2018 of ‘free’ higher education in South Africa has meant that civil society bursary support providers working with higher education students have re-positioned some of their initiatives. While they continue to focus on promoting student success, some have changed their financial support models; some, the students they support; some, the emphasis within their support; and some, the kinds of qualifications they support.  

For REAP the overarching strategic shift has been the recognition that the financial barriers to access to higher education for rural learners – its raison d’etre since 2011 – have now been substantially removed. Whilst REAP has always strived to maximise completion rates, this has now become its unequivocal primary focus – along with employability and imparting values around integrity, community service and active citizenship. 

The bursary support provider sector in South Africa comprises a range of organisational forms based in business and civil society. It includes initiatives of corporate social investment offices (CSIs), of benefactors and foundations; organisations for-profit and not-for-profit are significant players in the sector. All provide material support in various ways as well as elements of ‘wraparound’ support to students at public universities. In doing so they may differ with respect to their ultimate objectives – e.g. aiming primarily at high performance / outcomes, or BBBEE compliance, rather than purely a social justice imperative. This may affect which students they serve and the nature of the support offered.

The current higher education system

The high failure rate at universities can be attributed to issues both within and external to the higher education system. While various initiatives within universities have sought to improve the possibility of students succeeding within the system, these have only been partially successful. Given the vast state resources now being allocated to student access, the imperative to optimise this investment and to improve throughput is now even more pressing – quite apart from the difference a university qualification can make to a person, their family and society at large.   

While the bursary provider sector is not well positioned to analyse and make proposals regarding these mainstream and structural issues, its intimate access to students has enabled these organisations to develop a well-grounded sense of what inhibits success for (some) disadvantaged students within the current system.

Key achievements to date

  • Finalisation of the terms of reference for the research. This included a draft action plan, which was subsequently amended in the light of Covid-19.
  • Securing endorsement and willingness to participate in the research from member organisations in the National Bursary Support Providers’ Forum (NBSPF)
  • Commencement of the literature review and documenting preliminary findings. 
  • Designing questionnaire for completion by leaders of participating organisations within the NBSPF and then analysing feedback and drafting report 
  • Extended interviews with leaders from participating organisations within the bursary forum following up on issues raised in questionnaire, reviewing organisational data and drafting report.
  • Designing survey for completion by front line programme teams from participating organisations within the NBSPF, analysing results and preparing report.
  • Establishing and co-ordinating working group within NBSPF to develop commonly agreed outcome measurement definitions for both student success and employment. Drafting final document. Invitations to USAf and Siyaphumelela to engage with this with a view to reaching common agreement across the wider higher education sector. 
  • Designing survey for completion by alumni from participating organisations within the NBSPF, analysing feedback and producing report 
  • Convening a working group involving NBSPF members to look at measurement tools for psychosocial support outcomes. 
  • Regular engagement with leadership group from NBSPF to ensure continued participation and agreement with jointly endorsed documents. 

These various reports will be synthesised to eventually form part of the final research report.  There will then be a dissemination phase where findings from the process will be shared with key relevant stakeholders within the higher education sector, including institutional staff, DHET, donors, research bodies and other bursary support providers. Already there has been huge buy in, co-operation and implementation from entities within the NBSPF as key issues are engaged with.