Finding Funding

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Article written by: Sindi-Leigh McBride

After venturing on a mission to explore funding options for my future self (and PhD plans that I hope will remain on the horizon for the foreseeable future, while I refine my research interests), Zimasa asked that I assist in contributing a post on funding academic adventures.

A brief disclaimer: There is a marked difference amongst funding opportunities across disciplinary divides as well as between undergraduate and postgraduate study. Applying to study overseas is a whole different ballgame to doing it at home!

Finding funding can get disheartening, but you have to keep your focus on why you are trying to study in the first place, not get swamped by the bureaucracy of making that happen. Conceptualizing how to do well academically while balancing the stress of paying for a degree is really difficult, irrespective of what field you may find yourself in or aspiring to be in, never mind what level of study you may be at. It helps me to think of scholarly efforts as a job that you have to pay to do, and if you are certain that you will do that job to the best of your ability, applying for funding is almost the same as proposing a project or submitting a tender. It is a good idea to think along the lines of a project cycle, with funding as the first step. This could also come in handy during future projects when you might actually have to factor attaining funding into your plotting and scheming.

Some layman’s terms:

  • Bursary is a monetary award that is granted on the basis of financial need and good performance. The recipient either does not have to repay the bursary or will pay by working for the sponsoring company for the number of years for which he/she received the bursary.
  • Scholarships are merit-based and are awarded for academic achievement.
  • Study loan is the money that you borrow to cover the costs associated with your tertiary studies and needs to be repaid. A loan should only be given out by a registered financial institution.

My experience: I got a high school bursary from The Student Sponsorship Programme (SSP). Check it out for grade 7 learners going to high school. My parents covered my undergraduate degree (3 years). For Honours and Masters Degrees (1 year each), I got a Postgraduate Merit Award, which covered my fees and required working at Wits doing stuff like tutoring and marking essays. (Most universities have this type of postgraduate scholarship option, and they are usually merit-based.)  For my second MA, I got a student loan (more on this below) as most bursaries/financial aid do not cover a second degree. Finding Funding Start here for an official overview: Bursary Pack from the Department of Higher Education and Training Alternatively, spend time on the institutions’ website. Here is a link to Universities in South Africa. Most universities have a page for financial aid/list of bursaries/fellowships on offer. At the very least, there will be a contacts page for you to speak to someone more informed.  Should you be interested in something not offered at a major university or college, I would suggest that you make list of all the institutions that cover your qualification and degree and then (1) compare fees (2) compare the total package of funding opportunities i.e. are all your fees covered? Including textbooks? What about accommodation subsidies or stipends? (3) Inquire about student funding support if not obviously advertised (if there is not a direct contact, the fees or financial aid offices are a good place to start), because it really cant hurt to try. Remember that most institutions, irrespective of whether it is a big university or private college, have different dates for applications and for funding. Some institutions only consider you for funding once you have been accepted; some consider you for funding at the same time as considering your application. What I usually do is make a checklist starting with the soonest closing dates, be they for funding or application and try to seamlessly apply for both. The same usually goes for grant or bursary bodies.  Funding biggies:

  • National Student Financial Aid Scheme of South Africa (NSFAS): There is probably nothing better in the world than getting the government to pay for your studies. But be warned: the application dates are rigorous because there are millions of eager beavers like you applying. Many people apply through the institution that they are studying at, as this is the main grant source for tertiary education institutions.
  • Eduloan: Provides financial support to students and to others applying on their behalf (provided you have an income of min. R2000 p/month). The online system is really user friendly, and what is really cool is that they cover things like textbooks and outstanding fees. Like a student loan, all can be done online/telephonically without the stress of application deadlines tied to the university/college.

The banks: The way most student loans work is that you only pay for only the interest while you’re studying, and then repay the capital afterwards. If you’re unemployed, this usually this means getting someone with a job to stand surety for you/ or to apply for the loan as your sponsor. If you don’t have someone to act in this capacity, it means building up some kind of credit history. In my case, I went with a student loan from Absa because I had been banking with them since I was a teen and had gotten a student credit card (R200 limit LOL) while doing undergrad, which I guess made it easier to evaluate whether I qualified for the loan or not. I was however working at the time (you usually need to provide 3 months bank statements), which meant that I didn’t need anybody to stand surety for me. I know that credit is a bad bad idea (I learnt the hard way) but a well-managed credit record really is a bonus. I got a Mr. Price account (again with a R200 limit) when I was quite young (I think you need to be 18), and was consistent about maintaining it and keeping it healthy. This served as a good record for things like cellphone accounts and lease agreements, and while this may seem to be a petty detail, it also meant that I always had proof of address for administrative hustles like applying for my student loan from Absa. Unfortunately, a birthday card posted from your grandmother will not stand as proof of address when you are applying for something and they want a reams of documentation from you.

  • ABSA Study Loan – I have no major complaints about this product but a warning! Often you have to reapply for the loan in the second/following years of your degree. This seems simple enough, but I had a job when I applied and got the student loan, but then I quit that job and freelanced for a couple of months which meant that (1) I didn’t have proof of employment and (2) my 3 month bank statements didn’t look as good anymore. The administrative schlep of reapplying was too much, and I opted not to get my second year financed by the bank. Getting funding is tough enough, and its super stressful to think that you’ve got your funding all sorted out, and then halfway through have to start all over again. Plan way ahead, and try to ensure that you funding scheming covers your whole degree.
  • First National Bank Life Start Student Loan – I like that they clearly state that fees are paid directly to the institution. You might think it is a good idea to manage your money yourself (as I did) but trust me it is not. OF COURSE I used some of it when deposited directly into my account, and then hated myself when I had to pay back something that would have to be paid back again!
  • Nedbank Study Loan – this one requires a once-off administration fee, which strikes me as super duper lame.
  • Standard Bank Student Loan – I have no comment here, so if you have had a good/bad experience with Standard Bank’s student loan system, please share!

 Postgraduate fellowships/ PhD funding: The cool thing about being a graduate is that it is a lot easier to come by financial aid after Honours level. So Masters and Doctoral degrees get more help but be warned that funding for the Sciences dominate.

  • Stanford list of bursaries for Africa –This is a random one but I had been spending time on this website, randomly found this and was pleasantly surprised at the comprehensiveness of the list.
  • GAL-bursaries  – Calls itself “the largest single open database of bursaries available to South Africa’s students, for local and international study”, citing that there are 1790 bursary offers available… pity they don’t have links to everything mentioned. Still, it’s good for getting an idea of what may be out there in your chosen field.

I cannot stress enough that away from the biggies and banks, there is a host of funding rivers that only need to be tapped into for you to access them. The best advice that I have to offer in this regard is to keep your eyes and ears on the ground, respective to your field. Relevant academic and professional websites (say for instance, if you are into journalism or if you care about social work) will undoubtedly post opportunities that you need to be ready to springboard from. Have your CV updated, scanned certified copies of your ID and qualifications and a motivation/cover letter template on hand so that you are ready to make like MacGuyver and tailor them to the requirements of the call for applicants. It has helped me greatly to apply the same logic to jobs or fellowship applications. Never forget, chance favours the prepared mind! Should you have a question or just want someone to brain bounce your scholastic schemes, drop me an email: and I will gladly assist in trying to research how best to find you funding.

By: Sindi-Leigh McBride

Age: 26

Occupation: Researcher, Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (CoGTA)

Educational Background: MA International Relations, University of Witwatersrand
MA Political Communication, University of Cape Town

Connect with  Sindi-Leigh

Twitter: @sindi_bindi


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