Help them to come and have their eyes opened

March 2, 2001

Support for black southern Africans to study in the UK needs continued backing, says David Simon.

In the dark days of apartheid and white minority rule in southern Africa, there was broad support from British higher education for opponents or victims of those regimes. Funds were raised and scholarships set up, and many a student union named its building, bar or billiard room after the imprisoned Nelson Mandela.

Qualified refugees from southern Africa seeking higher education were granted scholarships and given other assistance. Other young people were unable to enter university in the region, often for political as well as financial reasons. Being offered a funded place at a foreign university allowed them to apply for a passport and, if successful, provided a route to safety and further study.

At the forefront of these efforts since 1981, the Canon Collins Educational Trust for Southern Africa caters for the region's needs. It was founded by the Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa in response to the repression and flight into exile of mainly black Namibians and South Africans. Over time, the trust has shifted from a near total dependence on small individual donations to a broader range of individual and corporate donors and substantial grants from Britain's Overseas Development Administration/ Department for International Development, the European Union and charities. Ethel de Keyser, the trust's director, received an OBE in recognition of the trust's work and her own activities.

Since South Africa's democratic transition in 1994, the region has slipped from the international limelight. Other priorities and crises occupy world leaders and their budgets. Many British universities have abandoned their anti-apartheid scholarships and renamed their bars.

The emphasis of the trust has shifted as well. Since the beginning of political normalisation in South Africa in 1990, the trust has developed a scholarship scheme to support students at universities and technikons in South Africa. This is cheaper and enables more students to be supported. Priority is accorded to subject areas likely to be of most social benefit.

The trust now has a South African office to administer this programme for up to 150 students at a time. University or technikon fees, the costs of accommodation or travelling, of books and of other necessities, put higher education beyond the means of the vast majority of black students. Student debt at all universities, especially the historically disadvantaged ones, has reached crippling levels and threatens the survival of several institutions.

There is still a need, however, to fund southern Africans to enable them to attend British universities. Some degree programmes of great social value do not exist in the region. And the opportunity to study in the United Kingdom, especially at the postgraduate level, is of immense value in opening new horizons. This includes:

* Exposure to comparative international literature and experience in fields still maturing in South Africa, like development studies

* Studying with a diverse international student body

* The opportunity to work in a specialised laboratory with international experts

* Access to many sophisticated cultural and social institutions.

At a personal level, the benefits of advanced study abroad are often profound. This has particular relevance in the context of the legacy of apartheid. The opportunity to see the world from a different perspective, to experience a different social and political environment and to engage with people from all walks of life provides many southern Africans with a new confidence and maturity to help challenge and transform situations that they would otherwise have accepted as the norm.

I have supervised several black South African postgraduates for whom coming to study in the UK was their first trip abroad. Watching their amazement the first time they saw a white cleaner enter my office to empty the wastepaper bin was to see a lifetime's acculturation to the norms of South Africa overturned in an instant.

British universities should continue fee waivers for southern African students from disadvantaged backgrounds. They should also play a bigger role in promoting change in the region's higher education by establishing formal institutional links and/or student exchange agreements. For such reasons, the trust has maintained its UK scholarship scheme even though some have suggested it should only finance students in southern Africa.

However, now that it cannot appeal to people's consciences on behalf of victims of apartheid, fundraising has become increasingly difficult. Nevertheless, the trust's role is no less important now than it was in the past. It is helping more and more students, yet these are only a small proportion of the eligible applicants who seek support in the UK and in southern Africa.

David Simon is professor of development geography at Royal Holloway, University of London, and a trustee of the CCETSA.

Details: www.canoncollins.org.uk

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