Mrs Helen Buhrs, Managing Director, Inscape Education Group

Helen Buhrs Inscape.jpg

What are the challenges of being a private institution?

Challenges are relative and mostly dependent on how you as an organisation or individual view the presented landscape. To play in the private education sector is exciting as we are in a time of flux. We are being held accountable and at Inscape, we love this. Our newest and most exciting challenge is gearing up to make the difference through education and maximizing our reach to ensure quality education becomes a reality for all.

How important is the creative sector and industry at large for South Africa socially and economically?

Take a moment. Look up, look left, look right – in fact spin around. Everything on you, around you and for you is designed. The hat on your head, the shoes on your feet, the system you currently find yourself in be it business, schooling, family or sport club, the screen you are reading – everything is designed. Whether you are considering the latest Tesla mobile or a new toothbrush, it is designed. Design is essentially a way of thinking, a methodology to provide solutions. Design encompasses the functionality, aesthetics, longevity and relevance of a product, system or solution. Design instils change and grows economies.

What are some of the successes you have enjoyed with students and in terms of the Group as a whole?

Inscape students often receive accolades. Some of our most recent winners or finalists include:

  • Inscape Durban campus alumna, Clara Vach, placed 3rd at this year’s Vodacom Durban July Fashion Challenge presented by Durban Fashion Fair (July 2016). 
  • Jared Harland and Marnus Erasmus, Inscape Cape Town campus students, won the DHK Think Space Competition. Their task was to design a boardroom space for iiNet, which has since been successfully built (September 2015).
  • Juanne Groenewald, Petra Korber and Jessica Claase, Inscape Cape Town students, “cleaned up” in the 2015 Plascon Colour Design Awards. Juanne Groenewald, won a trip to the London Design Festival in the UK as well as a cash prize for the Cape Town campus. Petra Korber received a special mention for her piece on Vivid Expression and Jessica Claase was placed in the top 18 and went on to represent Inscape at the 100% Design Display at Decorex in 2015.
  • Tiffany Onderstall, a first year Bachelor of Design student from Inscape, was announced the overall winner of the magnificent 2015 Adobe Certified Associate South African Championship. Tiffany went on to place second in the 2015 Adobe Certified Associate World Championship. The Adobe Certified Associate World Championship and Microsoft Office Specialist World Championship were both hosted by Certiport in Dallas, US.
  • Hugo Van Niekerk, an Inscape Pretoria campus student, was selected as a finalist at the Sasol New Signatures Art Competition. His artwork entitled “Die Arsenaal” was exhibited at the Pretoria Art Museum from 3rd September to 4th October 2015.
  • Thabisa Mjo an Inscape Durban campus alumna, from Mash.T Design studio, was chosen as the June/July finalist in the 2015 Homewood Emerging Interior Designer competition. Homewood ran a competition to discover and promote South Africa’s emerging design talent.
  • Ryan Byrne, an Inscape Cape Town campus student, was chosen as a finalist in the Getaway Gallery photography competition for his piece entitled “Hill Tribe Girl”.

Inscape Education Group recently rebranded. The purpose of the rebrand was to transform the organisation. The project was known as Code T. The new Corporate Identity (now three years old) uses a unique designed typeface. It targets a diverse demographic and it says we mean business. It expresses our core values – Quality, Authenticity and Relationships.  Transformation by design – it worked. We are transformed.

A commitment to providing access to higher education in the creative sector to academically deserving candidates who could not otherwise share this privilege saw Inscape establishing a scholarship program in 2014. For every 20 fee-paying students, Inscape funds one previously disadvantaged student. In 2015, the institution received in excess of 300 applications. 60% Of the applicants were either from child-headed households or from families living on a government grant of R1 470 per month. Inscape currently has 36 scholarship students completing 1st and 2nd year studies. The surplus applicants who could not be helped weighed heavily on the heart of Inscape and Helen Buhrs, the owner of Inscape, has now established a Non Profit Company called Inscape Exchange. The purpose of the NPC is to source additional funds to ensure the scholarship programme is able to meet the need. The vision is that by 2020, a minimum of 150 scholarship students are enrolled each year.

Education is not only about imparting knowledge and acquiring a set of skills that produce a qualification. At Inscape, we are about providing opportunities that ensure the students excel beyond a graduation. Project81 is an Inscape Education Group initiative developed to identify and promote 81 products designed by Inscape students annually. Inscape has committed to putting 81 new product ideas and business concepts into the South African market each year.

Inscape Design students complete a brief as part of their course requiring the development, marketing and sale of a product suitable to a chosen market. Product development includes business plans, branding, and funding sourced for the initial prototyping.

81 products are selected nationally. Products are exposed to potential investors and the general public. Project81 aims to empower students by assisting them to set up sustainable and viable business ideas within the South African market. View the 2015 Projects on

Three student projects are currently being developed to prototype stage at the Product Development Technology Station (PDTS) at the Central University of Technology in the Free State.

What is your view on the importance of higher education and what are Inscape’s competitive advantages in terms of what you do in the sector?

In an article in the Mercury (12/01/2015), journalists Leanne Jansen and Anna Cox reveal universities are ‘bursting at their seams’, and that school-leavers have only a one-in-eight chance of studying. The Mail & Guardian (24/01/2015) quoting the Minister of Higher Education and Training’s submission to parliament, notes that in order to fund all new applications for higher education in South Africa, a budget of R51-billion was required. The department’s budget, though, was in the region of R9.5-billion. The minister said the money would cover 425 095 new entrants and this would be 28 646 more than the last year. There is clearly a supply and demand deficit in the South African higher education sector.

At Inscape, we provide progressive education that is closely monitored through intense quality assurance systems. Our high throughput and employment rates are a testimony to our success. Beyond the learning environment, we provide opportunities to our students that give them a competitive advantage when entering the business world. As disruptive leaders in our sector, we aim to be nimble, agile, diverse and responsive to the immediate and future needs of our world. This is enabled through a technology-driven strategy that is integrated in all that we do.

You believe strongly in students taking responsibility for themselves in certain areas – please elaborate on this approach.

We instil a teaching approach that is grounded in the principles of Work-Integrated Learning (WIL). Graduates who leave us are confident to enter the business world. We adopt a business approach in our curriculum and classrooms to prepare graduates for both the expected opportunities and challenges in the working world. Students are encouraged to make decisions, take responsibility and acknowledge the consequences of their action. This approach is embedded in the curriculum and is encouraged in the management of students at the institution. Students develop the ability to reason and apply critical thinking at each step of their design process as well as in their daily activities.  

  • How have you been able to provide support to students at risk?

Students who are at risk of not succeeding at Inscape are in the minority. A continuous assessment approach ensures that students and the institution are held accountable consistently. Our lecturer student ratio is low to ensure individual attention beyond the immediate academic needs of our students.

The institution has yielded excellent throughput rates and produces graduates who find employment. Annual tracer studies indicate that an average of 93% of our degree graduates are employed in their chosen field and a further 2% go on to study further. 50% Of graduates from 2013 to 2015 from the Higher Certificate in Architectural Technology are currently studying further in associated fields; Architecture, Architectural Technology, Mechanical Engineering, Civil engineering, Urban Design, Project Management and Design. The institutions that the students have enrolled at successfully include: University of Kwazulu-Natal, University of the Free State, University of Pretoria, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Tshwane University of Technology, University of Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, University of the Witwatersrand, Howard College UKZN, Cranefield College, Design School South Africa, Design Times, Unisa and Inscape Education Group. A further 40% of these graduates have secured employment in the built environment sector.

In what ways have you or your fellow teachers/staff members seen the effects of these socio-economic problems?

Despite the economic crisis in our country, Inscape has continued to grow. We believe that this is because as an institution we are able to offer value-driven products and the return on investment by our students and their parents is real and significant. An intentional drive on efficiency and effective financial management of the organisation has allowed us to continue development and growth within the organisation and we offer no tuition fee increases for 2017.

However, whilst the institution has managed to maintain a healthy economic situation, we have experienced an increase in anxiety amongst our staff and students whose spouses or family members have been made redundant or simply cannot find employment. The stress of these situations has a direct impact on the academic progress of our students and the productivity of our staff.

Have you suffered any damage or delays as a result of the recent student uprisings?

The institution is sensitive to the need for good quality education that is accessible to those who are willing and able to learn. Inscape suffered limited delays this year due to extended closing dates at public universities, especially in its access programmes. We have noted an increased awareness by students and parents of the privilege they have in gaining access to education of high quality.

What do you see as the major challenges for education in SA, and what are the strengths we can offer local and international students?

The two greatest challenges for education in South Africa will be the continued ‘sheep mentality’ and ‘excuses around access’. We define the ‘sheep mentality’ as educators that choose to avoid innovation, herding their students through the same old humdrum, producing mediocrity, categorising individuals into boxes and supressing uniqueness. Institutions who do not address access and adequately support students to achieve their full potential are a challenge.

As a country we have a richness in culture and an immense sense of ambition. We are often forced to play outside of our own comfortable space. We embrace change and we see each development as an opportunity. As responsible educators, we offer the platform in which students can engage to become exposed to this richness.

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