The Unintended Consequences Of BBBEE Is Setting Students Up For Failure

Johannesburg, 19 February 2024 There is a noticeable shift in the way education bursaries are being awarded under Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE) regulations in recent years – and not for the better for those that most need and deserve them.

The regulatory requirements force compliance to be too prescriptive and the process has in consequence migrated to something where many South African companies and trusts want maximum BBBEE points, sometimes without thinking of the potential unintended consequences. It’s not really the fault of the donors, but more a regulatory requirement enforcing a tick-box approach to point-earning rather than the human factor.

The initial and laudable idea of BEE was to promote education and to empower the man on the street. That human factor has often been lost but should remain part of individual corporate initiatives whereby they should sponsor more than just education – by including many of the peripheral but essential things associated with education.

The argument is that many South African corporates and trusts are making an extremely narrow selection of candidates that is based on scoring BBBEE points rather than genuinely uplifting deserving disadvantaged candidates.

The scoring process tied to the BBBEE regulations opens the door to a disheartening level of discrimination within initiatives that are supposed to be non-discriminatory and aimed at uplifting the previously disadvantaged. However, companies gain more points if they sponsor a certain group leading them to prioritise ticking these boxes over considering the actual needs and potential of the students.

Institutions are tasked with finding suitable candidates for bursary money entrusted to it but is often given such detailed preferences that the individuals ultimately selected are set up for failure. Many institutions maintain a database of suitable candidates, including those with disabilities such as deafness, but is increasingly being asked to find exclusively ‘black females’, or even ‘disabled black females’. Given the extremely low percentage of matriculants that pass STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) with university exemption-grades, qualifying candidates are a scarcity and often those least likely to succeed.

Students who may excel academically but do not fit the specified criteria are overlooked. Those selected both lack necessary support and are set up to fail, while others sometimes pursue studies solely because of the stipend, not necessarily out of genuine academic interest, which can impact their study performance.

A second challenge is that some corporates, having achieved their goal of accumulating maximum BBBEE points for their own scorecard rating thereafter take insufficient interest in the beneficiaries’ performance.

Most companies only cover tuition fees, leaving out vital aspects like accommodation, transport and food. For students from severely disadvantaged backgrounds living in inadequate conditions, this creates significant challenges. The challenges these students face extend beyond academic performance, involving socio-economic factors that need consideration. Many lack basic amenities such as electricity and wi-fi, making it nearly impossible for them to focus on their studies and succeed in a university environment.

Sometimes, students lack the funds even to travel to the campus, making online learning their only option. However, evidence suggests that many of these online students don’t pass even the first year. If companies fail to provide comprehensive support to address the poverty these students face, their chances of success remain minimal. That investment, which could have gone to a student more likely to succeed, is consequently wasted.

If companies were more attuned to the home situations of these students, they would realise that covering more than just tuition is crucial for setting them up for success. For instance, allocating a budget to cover not only tuition but also residence, daily meals, wi-fi, and a laptop would significantly enhance the chances of these students thriving academically.

When it comes to companies doing it the right way, the process begins with them reaching out to academic institutions who maintains a comprehensive database. Individuals interested in bursaries apply through them, and they are placed on a waiting list for potential sponsorships. The beauty of this system lies in their ability to filter and match applicants with the specific requirements of the sponsoring company.

If companies still wish to pursue their narrow criteria, more individuals could yet benefit if companies perhaps awarded bursaries to fewer students but rather covered all their costs – raising the pass rate. Some forward-looking companies already do so, and typically this is because they have identified individuals which they intend to employ post-education.

It is worth highlighting the moral dilemma for those involved: Is it ethical to offer bursaries when there’s an awareness that a significant portion of the recipients might not overcome the hurdles due to inadequate support? This simply reduces the skills base of the country: it’s a complex issue that requires a re-evaluation of both the regulations and the practices of companies involved in this process. 


Belgium Campus is a South Africa-based pioneering ITversity in South Africa that helps raise the bar in private education in the ICT industry. The higher education institution collaborates with the industry to provide students with the financial support necessary to forge successful futures. Well-established and renowned, it has campuses in Pretoria, Kempton Park, and a newly opened campus in Stellenbosch. Its success stems from a Participative Development Model of Education which accounts for the needs of students, industry, academia, government, and society alike, resulting in demand-driven, student-centred, and business-focused higher learning. 

-Dr Elaine van Wyk, Belgium Campus chief marketing officer