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17 April 2019 | Story Leonie Bolleurs
Science ambassadors
Friends Tekano Mbonani and Chaka Mofokeng are pursuing graduate degrees in respectively Physics at the University of the Free State (UFS) and Astronomy at the University of the Western Cape. The two got together and decided to reach out to the high school, Leseding Technical Secondary School, where they came from.

It was a full house as more than 120 learners packed the hall at the Leseding Technical Secondary School in the Free State, where two young Astronomy researchers had come home to tell their younger peers about their studies and career prospects across South Africa.

Chaka Mofokeng and Tekano Mbonani are both former learners at the high school. Currently pursuing graduate degrees – for Mbonani in Physics at the University of the Free State (UFS), and for Mofokeng in Astronomy at the University of the Western Cape – the two friends got together and decided to reach out to the high school where they came from.

The event took place in January before schoolwork, tests, and exam preparations are occupying learners’ minds, inviting them to think about the big picture – the future, and how to be part of it. This is timely, because in July last year, the MeerKAT radio telescope was inaugurated in the Karoo. The MeerKAT is the first step to the international SKA telescope project, but it is already one of the best radio telescopes in the world and has placed South Africa firmly on the world map of radio astronomy and engineering.

Building a bridge
“This project enables us to build a bridge between secondary and tertiary institutions. Currently focused on senior secondary students, we aim to promote science through outreach events and activities. Using science and technology-based activities and events, such as stargazing at an observatory or exploring the universe in a planetarium, we want to attract these future secondary graduates. We also provide mentorship, hoping to help them improve their academic performance in matric,” said Mbonani.

For a whole morning, they spoke about their journeys, about science, about the skills that scientists acquire during their studies and all the opportunities such studies open up in an era where the 4th Industrial Revolution is predicted to reduce the number of jobs in many traditional professions. They addressed their peers in both English and Sesotho.

Astronomy in South Africa contributes to critical-skills development. Investing in the MeerKAT, for example, meant that over a thousand bursaries were made available through the SKA South Africa Human Capacity Development programme. Young scientists like Mofokeng and Mbonani have the opportunity to be part of MeerKAT science projects through their studies, using machine learning and other skills that are high in demand in today’s world. This was one of the messages they brought home.

Gaining new skills

“As an Astronomy research student, I have gained skills such as data analysis, mathematical modelling, communication and writing, programming, and teamwork, among others. These are requirements for most companies and institutions. With the unfolding of the 4th Industrial Revolution, such skills sets make young and aspiring scientists the perfect candidates for making the most of future opportunities,” reflected Mofokeng.

Most of the learners said they have never attended a science-outreach event. They were inspired by the young scientists’ stories and nearly half of them said they could see themselves pursuing a career in science. The learners also expressed a strong interest in more events of this kind, as well as mentorship during Grades 11 and 12 from peers at university. They asked about the salaries earned by astronomers, how long the studies take, and where astronomers are working in South Africa.

This initiative, started by two bright young scientists, hopefully marks the beginning of many more events of this kind. Mofokeng and Mbonani are already planning what to do on their next trip home.

News Archive

Important message to UFS students on NSFAS and financial aid in general
2013-02-01

31 January 2013

Dear Students

There remains some uncertainty as well as misinformation within the student body concerning NSFAS and financial aid in general. This communication is intended to provide the facts on the state of student funding at the University of the Free State (UFS). I hope you find this information helpful and that it would guide you in your decisions as you wait to hear from, or hopefully receive funding from NSFAS or any other source.

  1. Every year the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) determines how much funding is available to fund students at all universities in South Africa; this is determined in part by the student numbers. Universities do not ask for, or determine the DHET allocation and are instructed by government that “NSFAS will ensure that the universities comply with the processes, procedures…for the allocated funds.”

  2. On 14 December 2012 the UFS received notice from the DHET that our total allocation would be R108,331,215.66 and that this amount must be apportioned in the following categories:
    General NSFAS Funding R85,174,275.07
    Teacher Training R2,291,940.59
    Disability Funding R1,265,000.00
    Final-Year Programme R19,600,000.00

  3. The UFS received 5 952 applications for NSFAS funding and with the available funding we can only finance up to 3 000 students on the Qwaqwa and Bloemfontein Campuses, provided that those students satisfy the stringent criteria, e.g. the so-called “national means test” determined for all universities in the country. If we funded more students that the available monies allow, the university would be held accountable by the NSFAS Board and the DHET and this would threaten future funding.

  4. Students apply in the previous year and therefore late applications are less likely to receive funding.

  5. Academic merit also counts, therefore students who fail one or more modules are less likely to receive new or ongoing support from NSFAS. The combination of academic standing and financial need are among the important criteria in decision-making on NSFAS funds.

  6. The UFS is one of the few universities with a very efficient record in using every cent made available to support poor students; we are proud of this record. No money is sent back to NSFAS, except small amounts not claimed by students in the disability category. The university is not allowed to shift funds between categories as described in point #2 above.

  7. Allocations are not based on campus, but need.

  8. The UFS sets aside an additional R35,7 million (in 2013) from within its own budget as bursaries so that we can accommodate as many students as possible. We spend every cent of this funding on students.

  9. The UFS also raises millions in bursaries from the private sector to support poor and promising students, though these funds are often linked to the industry granting the money, e.g. Investec for Accounting students and SASOL for Chemistry students. This recruitment of bursaries is a 24/7 commitment of the Marketing Office and the Faculties and Heads of Departments are also active in raising funds from government agencies, parastatals and the private sector for students in their units.

  10. After almost all our 2013 funds were allocated in favour of students, we calculated a shortfall in the NSFAS allocation of approximately R51 million. We are in the process of making an urgent submission to NSFAS to consider this additional allocation, but we cannot guarantee that this plea can or will be met.

Finally, I want all our students to know that the University of the Free State works very hard to raise every cent we can to provide poor students with funding for their studies. Many of my colleagues, including support staff, who do not earn very much, use some of their meagre personal resources to help a student with money for registration or clothing or food. In fact, the No Student Hungry Campaign that raises more than R600,000 by UFS volunteers annually, is another mechanism for trying to assist students who might have money for studies, but not much else.

We do this because we care, and because this is what The Human Project at Kovsies is all about.

I therefore ask for your patience as we continue our labour of raising the funds that enable every deserving student to continue their studies at the University of the Free State.

Should you have any further questions about NSFAS, please leave an email inquiry on choanet@ufs.ac.za or mallettca@ufs.ac.za and we will endeavour to provide you with the information you require.

Sincerely Yours

Jonathan D Jansen
Vice-Chancellor and Rector
University of the Free State

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