Service plan to solve financial woes

November 7, 1997

NEEDY South African students saddled with large study loans should be able to pay them off partly through community service work that also teaches skills, earns academic credit, benefits universities and supports development efforts in the country, a major study suggests, writes Karen MacGregor.

The study, by the influential business-funded Joint Education Trust, titled Community Service in Higher Education: A Concept Paper, offers possible ways out of the financial mess in which many students - and the state - find themselves in a country committed both to fees and to rapidly increasing access to higher education.

Drawing on nine international examples of student "national service", the community service idea is mostly voluntary and claims to offer real gains to all involved: students, higher education, the state and communities.

JET has taken care to avoid the proscriptive tendencies of a controversial "national service" scheme mooted by the department of health for student doctors. Significantly, the kinds of service identified by the study are supported by student and youth organisations as well as department of education officials.

The paper, say authors Rahmat Omar, Helene Perold and Penny Vinjevold, was developed to "gain some clarity about the role of community service in higher education and to stimulate informal debate around this issue".

The strategies it puts forward try to tackle multiple goals, including "meeting skills shortages, integrating experiential learning into the higher education curriculum, enabling graduates to meet new requirements for professional registration and providing employment opportunities for graduates".

Community service programmes involve people in "activities designed to deliver social benefits" to communities in ways that teach participants to work jointly towards common goals, the authors say. Such service, they stress, usually involves some personal sacrifice in terms of time, money and convenience. Programmes could be voluntary or compulsory, paid or non-paid, and could encompass activities ranging from voluntary work to services requiring some training.

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