Students aren't looking for a free ride, they’re broke

It’s difficult for students who are struggling financially to focus on their academic work. (Shutterstock)

It’s difficult for students who are struggling financially to focus on their academic work. (Shutterstock)

The #FeesMustFall student movement has garnered a great deal of popular support. It has its critics, too. They have suggested that the government and its universities can’t afford the free tertiary education students are demanding as their right.

These critics, including those who have proliferated on social media, miss an important point.
Students are not looking for a free ride. For many, money is a distressing and unwelcome distraction from their studies – qualifications they hope will lift themselves and their families out of poverty.

I recently concluded research about the factors that influence first-year students’ experiences and academic performance.

The majority, 94%, of the students in my study needed external funding, such as student loans, bursaries and scholarships, to support their university life. Some had even enrolled for degrees without having their funding confirmed, so their days were consumed by worries about finance.

One said: “When I left my job to study full time it was not easy. My money saved paid for my registration fees and res, yeah, but that was, like, it. I couldn’t pay for food, clothes, books, transport or anything and then I applied for [a bursary scheme] and [it] didn’t take me. So right now I’m not paying, literally.

I am just staying at res. So I’m not paying there and I’m not paying my fees because I thought if I get the bursary, it’s gonna come through. But it didn’t come through. I have to think of a way to pay for my studies.”

Most of these students cannot rely on their families for financial support. Parents’ jobs influence the amount of money they can give their children. In the study sample, only 24.45% of fathers and 22.2% of mothers had professional occupations and could offer help to their children.

Students keenly felt this lack of support, with one saying: “If I had the financial support from my family I would have done much better in maybe some of the [academic] work; it’s no excuse, I could do better if I had this support.”

In total, 41% of the participants in my study received some financial support from their parents, 53% relied on external funding – 10% received student loans and 43% student bursaries – and 6% paid for their own studies.

Across the board, the students’ main priority was to secure financial aid before focusing on academic activities. Only once they were able to deal with this stumbling block did they shift focus to their studies.

But being at university is not solely about studying. Socialising is an important component, giving students the chance to meet new and different people.

However, many of the students I interviewed had picked up part-time jobs to try to keep the wolf from the door. This kept them off campus at times when other students were socialising or getting involved in university activities beyond the classroom. This made these students feel less like they belonged at university.

The study reveals that social disintegration with both academics and peers deprives students of a holistic university experience.

Universities need to provide the space and opportunities to encourage social connection on campus, which, research shows, can be an important factor in students being successful. Institutions have an obligation to ensure students get the most out of their university experience and that they produce well-rounded graduates.

How should institutions help students who are forced into employment and prioritise this ahead of their academic studies?

One suggestion is for universities to play a more active and aggressive role in ensuring that students don’t have to wait for money. Some funding schemes pay out only after the academic year commences. Others confirm student funding only after term has started. This results in many students not being able to get past the hurdle of paying the upfront registration fees. Policies and programmes are needed to make financial aid available from the very first day of study – or even a few weeks before a course starts.

In addition, student fees should be determined by individual applicants’ economic and social circumstances.

Addressing students’ funding challenges as early as possible would mitigate the stress of students trying to secure financial aid while also trying to cope with their academic and other commitments, such as finding a job and sorting out accommodation, food and living expenses.

Universities want to produce the sort of graduates who can do great things for their country. To do this, institutions must realise that financial stress is a terrible burden – one that distracts potentially excellent graduates from their academic goals. –

Subethra Pather lectures in academic development at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology

The Conversation

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