Poor students face massive financial stress

Institutions of higher learning need to understand the full impact of the conditions of poverty under which students live, think and learn while studying for a degree or diploma — and how these conditions affect their academic success. 

Entry into tertiary education for students from poor backgrounds is an opportunity to change their economic status at a personal and family level. But this becomes difficult to achieve when their economic conditions impact on their ability to achieve academic success. Without adequate financial resources available in institutions of higher learning, students' experiences of poverty may be only marginally alleviated, which merely extends and in effect reproduces systemic conditions of poverty. 

This article is partly informed by research based on semi-structured interviews with students concerning their experiences on achieving academic success. 

Empirical research Mmaselloe Sekhukhune conducted in 2008 for his master's thesis indicated that many poor students from low-income households do not have enough funds to afford food, and this has a negative impact on their academic performance. 

Five of the 10 students who participated in his study had to terminate their studies because the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) did not pay all their outstanding fees. They could not find ways to pay outstanding fees and were therefore not in a position to receive their results. They had to have these results to register for the next academic year. 

Research also published in 2008 by Barbara Jones, Gonda Coetzee, Tracy Bailey and Sharman Wickham supported these findings. They wrote that inadequate financial resources constitute one of the most important reasons cited for students dropping out of university. 

Stable but still dropping out
Though this is supported very strongly by international research literature, it does not explain why so many students who are financially stable also drop out of university. Here Vincent Tinto's 2003 findings are important: in the context of higher education, the notion of poverty must be expanded because it encompasses the entire nature of the teaching and learning environment.

The dimensions of poverty here may be thought of as an individuals' financial resources, the family's financial resources or the number of dependents, material resources such as the kind of accommodation students occupy, the physical conditions under which students learn on campus, students' access to health care, students' wellbeing, the sociocultural resources that are related to students' academic background and the sustainability of these resources. 

Under a combination of these factors, individuals' energies and efforts for sustaining themselves will not be effective for their survival, which can cause a great deal of psychological distress. 

Consequently, it is clearly important for universities to understand what the needs of financially under-resourced students are so as to best support their academic needs. But South African higher education institutions face their own challenges. 

As Gerald Wangenge-Ouma showed in his 2010 Oxford Review of Education article, universities often cannot offer the most appropriate support for these students because the governmental funding they receive is keeping pace with the rising costs of higher education provision of the post-apartheid state. It is necessary for higher education institutions to be aware of students' needs and to take responsibility together — with the students — for students' success.

Socioeconomic background
The students' socioeconomic background is known to have an impact on university attendance: that is, a strong relationship exists between the lack of financial resources and becoming a university student. In our own interviews, a respondent reflected on the role within the family: "With me I knew that they didn't have money. I couldn't afford my studies; it is easier when you are working. But I sat at home and my people did not understand."

Many students have a limited understanding of what will be required while studying at a higher education institution. 

One respondent said: "My parents managed to pay the fees because they say they have saved me money for the fees only. [But there are] difficulties paying for my accommodation … Both my parents work in a factory and cannot afford any extras."

Students experience harassment if they are not able to pay their fees and are placed on the Credit Bureau list, even if they are able to pass all subjects successfully. One respondent stated: "I passed all my subjects but I had to leave the institution … NSFAS could not pay all the fees … the institution will take me to the Credit Bureau … it is always a problem because you're still owing money and they say no, you can't enrol."

Other financial needs
Funding in the South African higher education context should not primarily be based on paying of university fees. When this occurs the needs of impoverished students are not fully met and it creates unnecessary psychological stress for them. As a result, students become preoccupied with finding ways of addressing and meeting their other financial needs such as living, accommodation, resources for assignments and registration fees.

A pattern emerges based on research findings, namely that a "one size fits all" approach to student funding cannot be adopted within the South African scenario. Funders of students in higher education need to take a fresh look at funding and consider the individual student in terms of the financial needs of their family. 

Funders may, firstly, have to view individual students and their socioeconomic and academic needs, to develop a plan concerning their individual and family needs and to determine how they can be funded to ensure their academic success. Secondly, based on this assessment, funding may vary from student to student and may give rise to various categories arising. 

Thirdly, funding may also differ from discipline to discipline because different projects and assignments are dependent on the buying in of resources for developing assignments and projects.

Without appropriate and adequate financial funding students who come from financially challenged households in South Africa might never be able to achieve academic success, change the negative cycle of poverty or contribute towards changing the race and gender profile of South African academe.

Dr Pauline Machika is the executive director of the Centre for Academic Development and Dr Bernadette Johnson is executive director of the Research Directorate, both at Vaal University of Technology

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