How TUKS, a heavyweight in vet science, is harnessing alumni to boost funding

Universities globally, like Harvard, are significantly funded by their alumni, with Harvard’s endowment reaching over $50 billion in 2022 due to philanthropy. In South Africa, however, universities face financial challenges due to substantial government spending cuts and tuition fee increase restrictions. This has led the University of Pretoria (TUKS) to diversify its income streams through a financial sustainability plan. Rikus Delport, the Director of Institutional Development, revealed to BizNews that UP is learning from the success of US universities in garnering financial contributions from alumni. Consequently, UP is establishing overseas foundations to encourage TUKS alumni to contribute financially. The first foundation was set up in the US, followed by one in the UK, with plans to expand further. Delport explained that the funds raised would support the ‘missing middle’ – individuals ineligible for state grants and whose parents, such as nurses, policemen, or teachers, cannot afford university tuition. He also commented on the ongoing turmoil at UP, stating that universities often mirror broader societal issues and face challenging times. Delport highlighted the high demand for admission at UP, with 60,000 applications received from first-year students this year, but only 8,500 could be accommodated. Internationally, TUKS researchers are known for their heavyweight contributions to veterinary science. One of the milestones in veterinary healthcare was the first-ever successful CT scan of a live adult rhino for a tooth root abscess that was treated successfully. The faculty also hit the international headlines when it scanned a 210 kg gorilla.

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:00 – Introduction
  • 01:01 – What motivated you to establish these overseas foundations to engage with the Alumni?
  • 03:29 – Do you have a target that you want to raise?
  • 04:33 – Response to research
  • 06:05 – What is the Alumni getting back?
  • 07:59 – Alumni involvement in university management
  • 09:11 – Where does the money go?
  • 10:36 – What is a missing middle?
  • 12:16 – How big is that group at Tuks?
  • 13:13 – Other plans to expand these Alumni engagement to other regions?
  • 14:57 – NSFAS issues last year
  • 16:06 – How do Universities navigate these turbulent waters?
  • 18:02 – Foreign students
  • 18:19 – How would University of Pretoria be rated internationally?
  • 19:33 – Conclusion

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Highlights from the interview

Significant decline in funding from government, no fee increases 

Unlike Harvard, we rely on three sources for our revenue. The first one is government funding. The second one is tuition fees and accommodation fees, and then the third stream income is where we rely on our team going out and raising funds from foundations, institutions, and alumni locally and across the world. If you have to divide it, it’ll probably be about a third of each of those income streams that contribute towards the income of the university.

What we have realised is that there’s been a significant decline, in fact, in the funding that we’ve received from the government over the past few years in the form of block grants and the other sort of funding that we get from them. We’ve also not been allowed to increase tuition fees by as much as we would have liked to. That’s placed us in a bit of a financial situation where we now need to look at other ways of finding additional resources of revenue.

The university started about two years ago putting together a financial sustainability plan and we looked at how we can improve our income streams. One of the ways that was identified was to look at starting with foundations across the world to see how we can reach out to our alumni to see how they can contribute to the funding of the university, to give back, so to speak. We’ve seen that as a very successful way of enhancing income in general if you look at what’s happening at other universities in the world. If you look at the US universities, they’ve been very successful in getting their alumni to give back in the way of financial contributions.

UP US and UK Foundations have been established

It’s still in its infancy, the US Foundation is about three years old now. We’ve just managed to put everything in place which includes getting all the admin sorted out and making sure that we comply with all the local legislation in the country. The UK Foundation was launched earlier this month. What we want to do is get all our alumni involved and then we go to them and say, ‘Look, here we have a proper body where you can donate money to assist students in South Africa.’ Hopefully, they’ll come to the party. We’ve already seen people getting involved, even on the launch day itself. A number of our alumni have come to us and said, ‘I want to become involved, tell me how I can support the university’s foundation.

Funding is not the only way to get involved

The first thing for us now is to start forming chapters. By forming a chapter in the cities where the foundations are based, we get people involved. Then the network starts to build and from there, we hope to grow the foundations. It’s not just funding. There are other ways that alumni can contribute.  It’s also helping us with setting up networks and introducing us to potential funders. So, we have people working, for instance, in financial institutions in London and New York and they come into contact with funders, trustees, and foundations that look at ways of getting involved in funding institutions like the University of Pretoria. We’re hoping alumni will make introductions, to put us in contact with those people, then we’ll go out and meet with them. That’s another way of assisting us in building those foundations. At the same time, we’re looking at alumni contributions through offering internships or mentorship for students. So, there are lots of ways for the alumni to get involved. Although our focus in terms of the foundations is very much on the funding side, there are also other ways that the alumni can get involved in making a difference.

There are tax incentives for contributions to the UP Foundation

There is always a tax incentive for alumni based in the countries where they reside. Interestingly enough, in the US, as I’ve mentioned, the system is very well-developed in terms of making contributions to charitable funds like ours. For instance, in addition to the tax rebates that they receive when they contribute to foundations like ours, there’s also what they call ‘matching giving’. This is where the companies that you work for will match whatever you donate to that institution. This provides another tax benefit for both the company and the individual. So, hopefully, they receive something back in that way.

Onderstepoort scanned a 34-year-old gorilla named Makokou, weighing 210 kg, after he was airlifted from the Johannesburg Zoo.

300,000 overseas alumni

Moreover, I believe that if there’s a strong culture of giving back, showing people that you’re prepared to support your alma mater, and demonstrating that you’re ready to help a student in need, it makes you feel good about doing something and making a contribution not just to your country, but also to the world.

In the end, the graduates from the University of Pretoria go on to make a difference in the rest of the world. They contribute to the economies of many countries. We have approximately 300,000 alumni, many of whom are based in other countries where they actively participate. They make a contribution, not just in terms of the taxes that they pay and their participation in the economy, but also in terms of the research they’re involved with, and how that has an impact on the country and its people.

What do Tukkies get back: Input in managing UP 

There are several ways that the alumni at our university can be involved in its management. For instance, we have the Convocation Board, which consists of alumni who serve in an advisory capacity. They have regular engagements with the university’s executive team, where they guide us on how they think we should be doing things. This input is always welcome. The board is made up of experts in various fields such as finance, technology, and investments. They definitely contribute and guide the university’s management in terms of what they think is beneficial for the institution. If they’re already invested in this way, it means that they participate and can truly make a difference in what they can do for the institution. We welcome this relationship, and it’s part of the university’s tradition to look to its alumni for advice, direction, and guidance.

A pantry for struggling students 

We have several projects, for instance, ranging from research projects right through to help for students. Contributions can go towards bursaries, accommodation, tuition fees, or even towards helping students who are struggling to find meals daily. We have a program where there is a pantry where students, especially those who are struggling, can come and take groceries. If they’re struggling to find food, for instance, they can go and prepare their own meals. So, your contribution can go to whatever you feel is a worthy cause, something that you are interested in, and there’s a range of those. All of these are available on our website. If you go to the University of Pretoria website, you’ll see a special section called ‘Giving to UP’. If you click on the website, there are many different ways that you can contribute. It’s not just about financial contributions. It’s also about offering your services as a mentor or as an employer to provide internship opportunities for students or newly graduated graduates.

Funding the missing middle

In South Africa, we have what we call ‘free education’. That’s really where the government supports the students that financially need it. Currently, these are students who come from a household where the joint income is below R350,000 a year. So those students qualify for free education. They get their tuition fees and accommodation fees paid for them. Then we have the students from rich parents, who can afford to pay their tuition fees. And then there’s the ‘missing middle.’ It’s a household where the parents are either policemen, teachers, or nurses or a single-parent family. They don’t earn a lot of money and sometimes they’re just not able to afford tertiary education for their children. Those are the students who are currently not being funded by anything. So recently, the Minister of Higher Education announced a new scheme to help fund that group of students. That’s still in the process of being rolled out. It hasn’t happened yet, but hopefully, that will go some way in alleviating the pressure on those parents and helping them to get their children to attend university as well.

Next port of call: Australia

We recently established a new chapter in Perth and we want to do our homework before we expand further. It’s very important that we assess the potential – is the environment conducive to establishing a charitable foundation? Not all countries view this as a friendly way of raising funds. Some countries may not support that and you obviously need to be able to offer some sort of benefits for the alumni based in those countries before you can go ahead and establish a foundation like that. But we are certainly looking at Australia and New Zealand, and then maybe a country in Europe. We also have strong support in Canada, where a number of our alumni are based and then, of course, Africa. As our student population becomes more and more diverse, many of our graduates find themselves in countries in Africa. We already have a strong contingent in Kenya and we’re also looking at establishing a foundation there. 

60,000 applications from first years for 8500 places, interest from foreign students

Turmoil on campuses is really challenging. But I think universities are microcosms of what’s happening in broader society. So, the socio-economic issues facing this country are very real at universities as well. That’s why we see this constant flux at universities where students face a huge issue around the lack of accommodation.

The lack of funding to get students into university is another major problem. There’s this huge demand. The University of Pretoria receives more than 60,000 applications to study at the university from first years, annually. Last year, we could only accommodate about 8,500 students. There’s a huge mismatch there. If the demand exceeds supply, then you can imagine that it would lead to some tensions.

That’s what you see coupled with the socio-economic conditions in the country, high unemployment, all of that makes for a perfect mix of instability. It happens at other institutions as well. But, institutions are dealing with this in the best way they can. It’s not always easy, but we’ve always managed to complete an academic year, even during COVID-19, although it took us a month or two longer. But we’ve managed to complete the academic year and to see the students graduate successfully. So, at least we can still say that. We still do that while we maintain really high standards. We are still rated as an institution, and I’m not speaking about the other universities, as one of the best institutions in the world and we still get a lot of interest from foreign students wanting to come and study at universities like ours. 

The University of Pretoria and the Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary achieved a milestone in veterinary healthcare by conducting the first successful CT scan on a live adult rhino.

Heavyweight in veterinary science

The university is very fortunate to have some of the best researchers in the world. They are comparable to the top researchers globally. Take, for instance, our Faculty of Veterinary Sciences. They collaborate with countries worldwide, conducting research and addressing emerging issues in these nations. We take great pride in our work, not just in veterinary science, but also in agriculture.

Our contributions to food security and sustainability are significant. The university is renowned for its expertise in drought-resistant crops and the research we conduct in this area. Our work and contributions in this field are noteworthy. The university is recognised as one of the leading research institutions when it comes to assisting other countries and making a global impact. We are experts in numerous fields, and for us, it’s a fantastic opportunity.

*The University of Pretoria and the Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary achieved a milestone in veterinary healthcare by conducting the first successful CT scan on a live adult rhino. The white rhino, named Oz, was orphaned and rescued by the Wild Rhino Sanctuary. As an adult bull weighing one ton, Oz was transported to the Onderstepoort Veterinary Academic Hospital for further investigation. The CT scan revealed a tooth root abscess, which was subsequently treated.

*In addition, Onderstepoort scanned a 34-year-old gorilla named Makokou, weighing 210 kg, after he was airlifted from the Johannesburg Zoo. A nasal growth was diagnosed.

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