“Where have you ever heard of a university becoming operational within one year of its establishment?” laughs Delana Finlayson, CEO of the Hermanus Varsity Trust (HVT). “It was actually completely ridiculous to think we could do it. But here we are at the end of 2019 and it’s a reality.
“Our first batch of students has just been certificated and we’re on track to achieving even greater things in 2020, more courses, more students. The three visionaries who first dreamed this dream are seeing it come true before their very eyes.”
It was in August 2018 at the height of the Hermanus protests, that three men sat down together and shared a crazy concept. They were Theo Kleynhans of Sparklekids, William Ntebe of the Zwelihle Youth Café and Emeritus Professor John de Gruchy of the Volmoed Retreat Centre. Their light-bulb vision was to create a facility where local youngsters could obtain a tertiary education without leaving home which would equip them with the skills to earn a decent living in their own environment.
Unbelievably, in March this year, only seven months later, Hermanus Varsity (HV) was launched at the old synagogue building in the CBD, the new Hub of its virtual campus. And that trajectory upwards and onwards has picked up speed, if anything.
“I sometimes feel we’re not moving fast enough, but when I look back on what we have achieved this year, I’m in awe,” confesses Delana. “And we’ve all learnt so much: some things we planned to do have not worked out, while others have absolutely taken off. I think one of the most exciting factors has been the enormous excitement and energy that all the participants have brought to the project. We are all passionate about making it work.”
Having completed the first two of a 10-module short-learning programme Higher Certificate course in Local Economic Development (LED) offered by the University of Johannesburg, Delana is thrilled that the 34-student cohort achieved a pass rate of 80%, which she compares to UNISA’s distance learning average of 16%. One of the crucial reasons for this success, she believes, is the ground-breaking contribution made by the tutoring system they have employed.
Verna Watton is one of the 15 volunteer tutors drawn from the retired academic and business community of Hermanus. “We really didn’t know how it was going to work,” she says, “but we bought into the vision. I think I can speak for all of us when I say that it has been the most amazing learning experience. I suppose we thought we were going to impart knowledge to the students, but, in fact, they have taught us far more than we could have imagined. We have become so involved in their lives that it feels as if we’re part of a close-knit family.
“You’ve got to remember that at traditional universities a normal tutorial would accommodate about 30 students, whereas in our case, it’s between two and three students per tutor. Because the tutors have become so sensitised to the conditions under which many of our students have to study, our commitment extends way beyond our two-hour tutorials.”
Delana also emphasises the excellent relationship they have established with the Universities of Stellenbosch and Johannesburg whose courses they are implementing. They are also hoping to finalise an MOA with the Department of Law at the Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth to present its certificate course on Criminal Law Enforcement. In most instances they plan to begin with a certificate course, followed by a diploma and if the student wishes to progress to Bachelor level, these will count as credits. Of course, a student could stop at any stage of the process and still be eligible for entry into the job market.
“In 2020,” says Delana, we will carry on with the remaining eight modules of the LED and those students who elect to complete them will emerge with a basic business tool kit, including accounting, marketing and business communications, amongst others. They would be in a position to add value to any Hermanus business which employs them, or, since there is also a focus on entrepreneurial skills, they could decide to start their own businesses.”
HV is aiming to introduce its first degree course – B Ed – in 2021, but in the meantime is working with the University of Stellenbosch to introduce an ADE (Advanced Diploma in Education) in 2020 to upskill existing teachers, so that they can ‘become the difference in the classroom’. Also on the agenda are a learner enrichment programme for Grade 11 and 12 learners, making it easier for them to achieve a Bachelor’s pass. The introduction of a year-long course for students who have a certificate-level matric, but would like to be able to register for a Bachelor’s degree is another option under consideration.
Most of the current students are bursary recipients and this will probably always be the case. HV’s grant agreements follow NSFAS guidelines, but there is an additional requirement, which the Trustees of the HVT believe to be extremely important and that is that the students undertake compulsory voluntary service in their own communities, whether it be taking HAWS’ dogs for a walk, overseeing the homework of younger children or sports coaching. Apart from ploughing something back into the community, it may also lead to an entrepreneurial opportunity for them.
Bongamusa Ndabexhwele, one of the current students says he feels he has a responsibility to be a role model in his community. “People are very interested in what I’m learning at the Varsity and they want to know what I will be able to do with my knowledge. I think it’s important to find something that you’re passionate about and I feel like that about recycling, so I’m going to volunteer at the Swop Shop at Yomelelani and see if I can get some tips on how to start my own recycling business.”
Of course funding is an ongoing issue for the NPO and PBO-registered HVT, especially as it is currently negotiating to buy the premises it occupies, the present owner having gone into liquidation. Although the historic old synagogue may not be entirely fit for purpose, Delana feels its advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.
“It just feels right; there’s a sense of place about it,” she says, “plus there’s space on the property for expansion and it’s close to transport for our students. Our slogan, ‘by the community, for the community’ somehow implies placing it at the heart of the town where everybody comes together.
“Based on the wonderful support we have already received and for which we are so grateful, we’re cautiously optimistic about funding and although we obviously need more big funders to come on board, small, regular donors are equally important. After all, we’re not planning to be here for a year or two; like many of the famous universities world-wide, we’re planning to be here for the next couple of hundred years. It’s so exciting – a miracle really.”
Student applications for 2020 are already open on the Varsity’s website, www.hermanusvarsity.co.za and Delana urges them to apply well before 8 January when they open for the new academic year. Donor options and course information are available on the same website or contact her on firstname.lastname@example.org