By the SPHEIR team

28 July 2020 - 14:40

Five students in a row in class

LEAP is an education-to-employment initiative, supporting talented students in Sub-Saharan Africa to access quality higher education. The initiative provides a holistic student offering through affordable financing, academic support, financial literacy and career readiness training, preparing Fellows to successfully transition to employment.

In this article, we look at some of the barriers to higher education for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, plus novel strategies for inclusion

For students from disadvantaged backgrounds, one of the key barriers to higher education is – unsurprisingly – finance. Only 9% of youth between 18 and 23 years are enrolled in tertiary education in Sub-Saharan Africa with an expected 15% annual growth rate of higher education demand set to further widen the accessibility gap. Commercial loans, bursaries and scholarships are hard to come by: the shortage of student financing in Kenya and South Africa alone is estimated to be $1.1 billion.

Launched in 2017, the Lending for Education in Africa Partnership (LEAP) is a social lending fund that provides affordable finance to young people in Sub-Saharan Africa for higher education. The UK-aid funded initiative is led by VOLTA Capital (UK), working with Equity Group Foundation (Kenya), inHive (UK), Lundin Foundation (Canada) and Mandela Institute for Development Studies (South Africa).

Self-sustaining social lending

LEAP Team leader Liesbet Peeters explains how the initiative works, “LEAP’s lending is directed towards young people from low and middle-income backgrounds. Through our work, we have seen first-hand how vital this finance is in helping students to access higher education and complete their studies. The programme model is designed to be self-sustaining: loan repayments from LEAP Fellows are re-deployed for future cohorts of Fellows over time.”

LEAP is supporting over 800 LEAP Fellows enrolled across five top Kenyan universities and a growing number of TVET institutions. The plan is to expand to over 1,300 Fellows by the end of 2020, and then in the coming years, to expand further across the higher education and vocational training sectors in Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda.

The challenge is working out how to allocate this finance to truly support inclusion. Liesbet continues, “Many existing student finance aid programmes reach very few beneficiaries through bursaries or come at high costs from commercial lenders. In most cases, students are already disadvantaged at an early age; they may receive less support due to their gender or background, this may affect their opportunities and academic achievements. LEAP’s students come from diverse socio-economic backgrounds and family situations and LEAP provides Fellows with continuous counselling, training and peer-to-peer support to assist them as best as possible.”

There is an additional challenge in allocating this finance to support inclusion and source a well-represented pool of applicants. Liesbet continues. “Many students are disadvantaged right from the start of their education with limited access to finance and other resources that would set them on a path to succeed in their pursuit for higher education. As a result, their academic performance may not qualify them for government support and other financing programmes. To address this, I think it is vital that we collectively look at our statistics to make sure we are creating a well-represented pipeline of students transitioning to higher education in terms of gender and socio-economic background. As a programme, we have been working closely with our partners and other institutions to ensure we have a diversified pool of students but also to ensure we understand the barriers that affect transition of disadvantaged groups to inform some of our processes.”

Student support services

In addition to financing, LEAP offers career readiness and financial literacy training to students, helping to create pathways to gainful employment.

During the students’ university experience, helping students to feel settled is crucial. “Many students from a disadvantaged background feel that they don’t fit in or may be confronted with prejudice. Academically they are in the right place, but from a socio-economic background, they find themselves out of their depth. This affects their academic progress and all-round development. Peer to peer networks and alumni connections with people from the same background are vital in helping students to feel comfortable and supported during their studies. We have nurtured a strong LEAP student community through the LEAP University Chapters that allows students to create meaningful connections."

While transitioning, career guidance is particularly valuable. Liesbet says, “Most universities have not built a strong career services offering, so students miss out on vital career preparedness guidance, i.e how to move from academia to a profession, how to approach the job market, where to look for a job and which networks to tap, how to enhance your LinkedIn profile etcetera. In our experience, students need a great deal of support during their transition from university to employment. Most don’t start to look for jobs until after they graduate, and many are unable to craft even a basic CV at the level of quality necessary to secure a job. In response, we have built a career readiness programme focusing on the student journey - it offers tailored personal and professional skills training to meet the skills gap and ensure students are well positioned for a smooth and successful transition.”

Moving online

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced more higher education institutions to offer online teaching and learning. This has brought new challenges and benefits to disadvantaged students. Liesbet says, “On the one hand, online learning offers some huge advantages from an inclusion point of view - for example it gives students greater flexibility over when and where they study, helping those with family commitments, work commitments or health concerns. However, the majority of students do not have access to laptops, WIFI or data plans. We’ve had some really sad examples of students missing out on exams they’d worked very hard for, simply because they couldn’t access what they needed. 

Through LEAP, we’ve provided our Fellows with extra data in their living stipends so that they are connected and online. A number of telecoms companies have also been fantastic, and offered to support higher education students with extra data plans. Online education is here to stay for sure – if we can all work together to help students get the equipment and data they need, that will really enhance the online learning experience.”

Access the Going Global event recording

In June 2020, Liesbet Peeters from LEAP took part as a panellist in the Going Global event - Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Higher Education. During the one-hour event, Liesbet discusses mobilising funding and support to meet the needs of underserved communities. Liesbet is also joined by Anna Cristina D’Addio from UNESCO, who shares findings from the newly released 2020 Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report on inclusion and education, and examines evidence-based policies to enhance diversity and inclusion in higher education.

Find out more and contact us

The Strategic Partnerships for Higher Education Innovation and Reform (SPHEIR) programme is funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) and is managed on behalf of FCDO by a consortium led by the British Council that includes PwC and Universities UK International.

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