Tuesday, July 28, 2009

I feel like crying…

Yesterday, realizing that August is almost upon us, it occurred to me that Grade 12 students who are planning on attending Varsity or continuing on with their students next year should have had their bursary applications in by now. A quick search on the internet that evening told me that for many scholarship and bursary applications, the deadline to apply is July 31st – this Friday. I asked a few of my students from last year who I know would qualify for bursaries based on their marks and in- and out-of-school activities if their bursary applications had been submitted. They all told me that they are planning on applying but that they had not yet done so. When I told them that the deadline was this Friday, all were shocked. I told them I would see what I could do and would contact as many schools, companies and organizations that offer money for post-secondary education to see if there was not any way around this deadline and if an extension could be offered.

Today I spoke with two people – the first was with an employee at the National Student Financial Aid Scheme who told me that students must contact institutions of higher education directly as they give money to the schools for them to distribute.

The other person with whom I spoke with was with a company called Careerwise. This is basically a brokerage firm that acts on behalf companies and organizations that allocate some of their budget for bursaries, connecting them with the most deserving students who apply.

It was my conversation with this second person that was most disheartening. After hearing my plea to allow for an extension on the deadline so as to permit my students to apply, he empathetically told me that because of the global recession the number of bursaries they had available to give out has been drastically reduced this year. Normally they are given somewhere around 400 bursaries to distribute. This year, they received less than half that number. He said he did not want to allow my students to apply for bursaries that he knew they would not get. I asked him if this meant that he was telling me that all the bursaries they had had already been allocated. He told me yes.

I thanked him and hung up the phone feeling incredibly sad. Sad for the fact that the companies with whom Careerwise is connected are likely not unique in cutting their bursary and scholarship budgets. Chances are this is an industry-wide phenomenon, symptomatic of businesses looking for the fastest, easiest and least painful ways to stem the haemorrhaging of money that the global financial crisis has caused. Understandably cutbacks are required in tough times like these, but I could not help but feel angry and the choices these companies and organizations had made. Cutting salaries and executive perks is troublesome, but cutting back financial support for students – the actual tangible difference between these kids having a future and not having a future – is more palatable?

Further, the fact that many application deadlines had passed poses an additional frustration. Of course, deadlines exist for a reason. As a teacher I understand their importance more than most. But why had students not been informed of these opportunities far before their submission closing dates? It took a colleague and I actively seeking out these prospects on our own time (Internet has not been working at school for months), to find them. No in-school bursary information session was held, no on-campus resources exist for students to access or explore on their own. This dearth of information is crippling in an almost literal sense.

Over the next stretch I will do what I can with the help of friends to investigate alternate bursary opportunities whose application deadlines have yet to pass. Impossible to ignore however is the reality of how stiff the competition will be if there are indeed any to be found and applied for, given the limited availability that will exist for reasons already mentioned.

Yesterday President Zuma promised to ensure that learners who are eligible for varsity but can’t afford tuition will be supported by the government although a timeframe for this initiative was not given. Whether or not this promise is lip service or an actual commitment that will materialize remains to be seen. Either way, the majority of the most financially disadvantaged grade 12 learners from 2009 are facing a bleak outlook for next year and beyond.

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