28 Aug, 2019

Time to talk about Scholarships – The game needs to change

By: Patrick Dunne, Board Chair, Education Sub Saharan Africa (ESSA)

Frank Odwesso

Who are funding scholarships in sub-Saharan Africa and why? What’s their return on investment (ROI)? How effective are scholarships at transforming individuals lives and societies?

What Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) should you have for a programme? How do people who manage such programmes share best practice and who else is involved in making a scholarship programme deliver big bangs per buck? 

These were just some of the questions we wanted to know the answers to when we created our Scholarship Impact Hub programme. Soon we will be publishing the results of our deep dive into the ocean of scholarships where we looked at over 300 programmes. We want to catalyse a debate with some hard evidence and to bring people together to really change the game for Africa’s young talent and for the good of all of us. 

In the meantime, a number of things are very clear already:

  • There are a myriad of motives and almost as many different types of programmes as there are funders. 
  • By changing mindsets from budget-based thinking to ROI-based thinking there is an opportunity to increase impact and return on investment and to attract more funding into the space. 
  • There is also the opportunity to better match scholarship funding to strategic priorities, whether that be in PhDs to help build local faculty capacity, or in high need skills areas such as data science or midwifery. 
  • Managing multiple small scholarship programmes can be costly and logistically challenging for universities and colleges.
  • There is currently no obvious forum for those working in this field to share best practice and learn from each other and most importantly:
  • The matching process for potential scholars and funders is both inefficient and doesn’t work for the most deserving. 

The three main categories of funders are governments, foundations and corporates, and it is absolutely legitimate for individual funders to have different objectives and different operating models.  There are many examples from each category who have highly effective programmes that we can all learn from. Yet in general, if you look at this as a system, it needs change and it needs it now. Dramatic rises in population on the continent, filling skills shortages, developing leaders across all walks of life and the need for job creation, all suggest that we need to maximise the ROI on the scholarship money that is available now as well as increase it. 

So it is time, in my view, for corporates to shift from corporate responsibility, public relations driven objectives and budget-based thinking for their scholarship programmes, to more commercial and ROI based thinking, which focuses on talent acquisition and diversity as well as measuring impact.  Cheap to run scholarship programmes are more likely to have higher fraud and drop-out rates and therefore lowest ROI. Scholarship programmes which have a strong link to  work experience and internships are likely to result in greater recruitment. 

It is time for governments to better match their funding to the strategic priorities of countries they want to support. ESSA’s work on the demographics of faculty suggests, for example, that there needs to be a substantial increase in the funding for PhDs to grow faculties at Universities, even with the most effective blended learning techniques.

It’s time for Foundations to work and learn together about how to increase the ROI of their scholarship spending. To agree a common set of short and long term KPIs for their scholarship programmes and perhaps to fund a small amount of further research into effectiveness and to create a more formal network of scholarship managers.

It’s time to address the matching conundrum. A big frustration for many funders is finding scholars to match their criteria, at the same time literally hundreds of thousands of scholars have no idea how to find scholarships. ESSA has decided to do something about this and is creating a pilot matching platform which will be launched in 2020. 

Finally, it will also soon be time for ESSA to share the results of what it has learnt in more detail and to get people together to figure out how we are going to dramatically change the “Scholarship Game”.



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