A pioneer of the free higher education movement in South Africa, Taddy Blecher created a university model that enables poor students to acquire a free, high-quality, professional education, while also employed by the university to gain practical experience and earn an income.
The New Idea
Taddy created a free university model based on a “learn and earn” methodology, whereby, students help to manage and maintain the university while completing their studies. They also teach young people in their home villages during their holidays. Once they have graduated and secured employment, they pay for the university costs of another student who will follow in their footsteps.
Taddy co-founded South Africa’s first free university, CIDA City Campus, in 2000. CIDA offers its students a top-quality four-year business administration degree that incorporates compulsory community service hours into its programs. To maintain a low-cost and sustainable model, Taddy created the CIDA Empowerment Fund, by tapping into a local and international pool of donors. This US$19 million education fund is 100 percent reinvested in the advancement and expansion of the model. Despite its success, it became imperative for Taddy to progress from the CIDA higher education model to one that placed greater emphasis on students taking active responsibility in unlocking their full potential. Taddy, therefore, created the Maharishi Institute, which adds consciousness-based education to his “learn and earn” methodology, enabling students to focus on their wholistic development, in addition to their professional training.
With this model, over 5,500 graduates have gone on to claim promising jobs in the field of business. Besides CIDA City Campus and Maharishi Institute, Taddy has helped to found at least six other free educational institutions in South Africa. More than 600,000 young South Africans have been educated in general business courses and special life-skills classes through these schools. Taddy’s academic focus now extends beyond business training: he has opened a university in a nature reserve to apply the “learn and earn” methodology to the natural sciences field. Taddy plans to spread the model throughout Africa and globally, and is currently working with Rwanda, and South America.
Structural problems within the South African education system are causing students to fail, rendering them unable to realize their full potential. The education system, like many aspects of South African society, is shrouded in the injustices of apartheid’s segregation policies. Despite efforts to reform the education system, low quality schooling persists and traps many in poverty. Various reforms have been introduced since the 1994 democratic elections, yet the quality of education has remained disappointingly low in schools serving disadvantaged communities. Research shows that by the age of eight there are already very large gaps in the performance of school children from affluent communities (top 20 percent of population) versus those from poorer communities.
Higher education is considered an essential tool for young people to reach their full potential and become economically active citizens. Surveys indicate that the level of cognitive achievement of the majority of South African children is alarmingly low in key learning areas, such as reading, mathematics, and science. Consequentially, young people are unable to pursue higher education and formal employment later. Only 14 percent of South African children enter some form of higher education (in the United States it is 80 percent). Currently, 72 percent of high school students in South Africa don’t even complete high school—many are lost during their last year of secondary studies, because they cannot pass the standardized national matriculation exams (South African Ministry of Education).
Furthermore, even when dedicated students manage to successfully matriculate from high school, the costs of tertiary education are prohibitively high for ordinary South Africans. The average cost of educating one child through university is around R40,000 (US$5,000) per year, while the average annual income is R48,000 (with approximately 40 percent of the population living in poverty). As a result, 75 percent of university dropouts are almost always tied to lack of funds. ‘First generation’ students from low income, less educated families are the most likely to dropout, despite the fact that most receive loans or bursaries from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme. These loans only cover a portion of the costs, placing enormous pressure on families while also fueling high student dropout rates. The tuition fee issue crops up annually in media reports, as student leaders’ protest with the hope of pressuring the government to resolve the problem of exorbitant fees.
Local research reveals that education is the most viable avenue for poor people who want to enter the top end of the labor market and enjoy not only the economic benefits of this but other qualitative aspects attached to the meaning of work (such as social interaction and self-fulfillment). Distance learning is a significantly cheaper option and has become an increasingly attractive alternative for many seeking higher education. The bulk of distance education students (85 percent) are registered with South Africa’s only single mode institution, the University of South Africa (UNISA). However the average pass rate for individual courses in face-to-face education is 77 percent compared to 59 percent for distance education. Even more concerning is that only a small proportion of distance education students in three-year qualification programs actually graduate. This is due to the weak methodology and lack of student involvement with online teaching. The dropout rate in distance learning education can reach dramatic highs of 88 percent (UNISA report).
South Africa’s education system continues to produce outcomes that reinforce existing patterns of poverty and privilege, instead of challenging them. The inequalities in schooling outcomes are manifested in the labor market; perpetuating current patterns of income inequality. With a population of 49 million, 24 percent (7.5 million) is out of work, the majority of whom are young people between the ages of 18 and 24. Therefore, there are clear connections between the educational crisis and youth unemployment. Nearly two-thirds of unemployed youth do not have a grade 12 certificate. Although all public institutions have put in place academic development initiatives that help students overcome poor schooling, almost all of the economically active white youth holding qualifications in business, commerce, and management fields are employed, while only half of black youth with the same qualifications successfully find employment (International Education Association of South Africa, 2010). Thus, the heritage of poor quality education is not adequately addressed by public higher education institutions as they are failing to absorb many young people and produce high-quality graduates.
With entrepreneurship and higher education in mind, Taddy sought a low-cost, high-quality, inventive solution that would equip young South Africans with an accredited and revered business qualification. Not only did he wish to create an affordable institution that would absorb them, but also one that could tap into their potential by instilling a sense of responsibility and dedication to community service. Taddy first founded CIDA City Campus, a university where, regardless of background, the infinite potential of every student could be developed. He focused on: (i) leadership training (ii) cutting-edge business skills (iii) technology-enriched, mass-scale higher education (iv) low maintenance costs, and (v) community service.
The university’s primary offering was a Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) degree. The BBA’s program content and design is structured to address the problems caused by a background of poor education standards and to ensure that learners achieve competitive and appropriate levels of knowledge, skills and attitudes required to meet international standards. The degree provides integrated business skills and knowledge in human resources management, finance, investments, and entrepreneurship. CIDA’s BBA degree is fully accredited by the Council on Higher Education (CHE) of South Africa. In additional to doing a degree in business, students do specific industry examinations in their chosen field, which assists with employment at graduation.
The university admits students from historically disadvantaged communities to study for a business degree, and registered students qualify for a full scholarship that includes tuition, books, food, accommodation, and transport. This is possible with the support the university receives from major public and private donors and foundation sponsors. When determining the eligibility of applicants for admissions, CIDA applies one or more of the following instruments: Admission Point Score (APS), recommendation letter, personal interviews, aptitude and/or proficiency tests, portfolios of evidence essays, and biographical information. These are used to ensure that the entry system is open enough to address the poor students’ needs, but also criteria-based to accept only those students committed and qualified.
With the success of CIDA, Taddy further developed the model with a strategy geared toward empowerment through responsibility, so that young people could also learn how to earn what they need and not be dependent on handouts. He created an entirely new infrastructure, the Maharishi Institute, whereby students can pay their way through the Business Administration degree in four ways: (i) manage and maintain the campus (ii) mentor younger students (iii) work in real work places as interns (iv) provide various support services to the community, including teaching. Taddy’s “learn and earn” methodology allows students to learn while making the campus self-sufficient. This combination of loans and employment both benefits the students and secures financial sustainability for the campus. In this way, donor funds are recycled to achieve highly leveraged social return.
This funding structure guarantees that for every student studying through the “learn and earn” model, funding is generated to bring in an additional four students. To further ensure the educational model is fully self-funded, Taddy launched Invincible Outsourcing, a state-of-the-art call center operating inside the university, where students learn how to pay their way through their business degree, earn money to support their families, and cover daily studying costs. Invincible Outsourcing offers clients unique benefits because it has the lowest staff turnover rates (as students will stay in the system for up to seven years), and there is consistent high-quality customer-service experience at the lowest possible cost for customers.
Another capital stream that came through donors is property assets, such as buildings needed for the universities to operate. It includes a R100 million (US$10.3M)-worth venue in downtown Johannesburg, as well as a 4,500 hectare nature reserve worth R35 million (US$3.6M) donated by the Oppenheimer family, where Taddy set up the first of such models applied to agricultural and earth science professions. To further make the education model sustainable he introduced microfinance for students. Taddy partnered with Ashoka Fellow Matt Flannery’s organization Kiva, to offer their first interest-free microfinance educational loans. Students will repay over thirty years interest-free. This means all students can ultimately pay for their own education. He also established a Corporate University scheme in which companies pay to establish and manage university-like training for their employees and also source new talent.
Learners’ intelligence and skills are enhanced, as the focus goes beyond the curriculum and its outcomes through the Maharishi Institute’s Consciousness-Based Education (CBE) approach, a world-renowned system of education centered on whole student learning. CBE has its main focus on the student, rather than just books or information. Book knowledge is vital to the educational process but unless the student is able to think clearly, this knowledge is virtually irrelevant. CBE is about connecting whatever a student is learning with how it relates to them as a person and why it’s useful in the world. This approach uses self-development methodologies, such as mental concentration, to elevate the learning experience and enable students to learn at a high speed, retain greater quantities of information, increase concentration time, and help them deal with crippling stress levels.
To date, Taddy’s efforts to support free access to postsecondary education have led to over 5,500 unemployed South Africans being educated through CIDA City Campus’ work, finding employment and moving from poverty to the middle-class. These formerly unemployed youth now have combined salaries in excess of R250 million (US$26 million) per year and expected life earnings of R9.5 billion (US$9.7 million). Additionally, over 600,000 young South Africans have also been trained in learning-skills courses in the other seven colleges or universities Taddy helped found with this model. He plans to reach another 3,000 students through Maharishi Institute and establish two new campuses (Durban, South Africa and Rwanda). His agricultural university, Ezemvelo Eco-Campus, reached 200 student in 2013. Taddy’s long-term goals include creating a University in a Box franchising scheme for his model to reach 100,000 students in all sub-Saharan Africa in eight years, with an estimated cost of US$2 per student per day. He also plans to replicate his model in South America through partnerships with Ashoka Fellows in the Brazilian state of Bahia, where 80 percent of the population is black, and young people face similar problems with access to higher education.
Taddy went through troubled teen years as he struggled to define his life-purpose and therefore, what his career path should be. His parents were constantly told that he had learning difficulties in school. Instead of seeking clinical help, Taddy’s older brother introduced him to Transcendental Meditation (TM) to assist him academically; but with little understanding of its transformative power, Taddy soon strayed from regular practice. Years later, overwhelmed and discouraged after repeatedly failing his studies, he was once again drawn to this self-development methodology. Taddy believes this practice awakened mental clarity and vigor that had become suppressed from persistent academic failures. With the assistance of TM, Taddy passed ten exams toward actuary science qualification in record time, achieving the highest marks.
Taddy became a highly sought-after actuary in South Africa. In 1995 he was on the verge of immigrating to the U.S. to further his career, when he had a moving experience on a first-time drive into Johannesburg’s black townships. As a highly educated white male, he had never been exposed to the poverty of the townships. His immediate reaction was to open his wallet, yet he felt that it would only perpetuate dependence on donations. Taddy realized that what was needed was entrepreneurial education and concluded that if South Africa was going to develop a sustainable future, it needed to provide direct professional paths for poor black youth.
With all his belongings already packed, Taddy decided not to leave for the U.S., but to dedicate himself to transforming South African education by relying on the greatest and most valuable resource by far: human potential. Taddy joined what then was a small citizen organization, CIDA, working with 9,000 kids in townships; teaching them how to use and develop their full potential through techniques he had mastered from TM. Yet he realized that once the students had completed high school, they couldn’t afford to continue their education despite great potential. Together with a few colleagues, no money, no books, no lecturers, and no facilities, Taddy founded a model for students to reach their potential through free and high-quality learning.
This is how CIDA City Campus was founded in 2000 and quickly became a national success story. The downside of the success was that it attracted stakeholders not motivated by the same ideals. The institution was rapidly gaining the reputation of being elitist and trying to modulate Ivy League universities. Taddy moved on and continued his social mission for true “free” education that unleashes students’ potential. Since then, eight other colleges and universities that follow this higher education model have been created, including his most recent Maharishi Institute and Ezemvelo Eco-Campus, which both now fully incorporating the “learn and earn” methodology along with Consciousness-Based Education. Taddy has received global recognition for his work from the World Economic Forum as a Global Leader of Tomorrow (2002), the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders (2005) as well as being a recipient of the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship (2006).