The #feesmustfall student movement in South Africa has garnered a great deal of popular support. It has its critics, too. They have suggested that the country’s government and its universities simply can’t afford the free tertiary education students are demanding as their right.
These critics and those who have proliferated on social media miss an important point. Students are not just looking for a free ride. For many, stress about money is a distressing and unwelcome distraction from their degrees – qualifications they hope can lift themselves and their families out of poverty.
Financial stress is a reality
I recently concluded research about the factors that influence first-year students’ experiences and academic performance.
The vast majority – 94% – of the students involved needed external funding like student loans, bursaries and scholarships to support their university life. Some had even enrolled for degrees without having 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 [residence], 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 financial support that they can offer their children. In the study sample, only 24.45% of fathers and 22.2% of mothers had professional occupations and could offer their children some help with money.
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 work [academic work]; it’s no excuse, I could do better if I had this support.
In total 41% of the participants received some form of financial support from their parents, 53% relied on external funding – 10% received student loans and 43% obtained student bursaries – and 6% paid for their own studies.
Across the board, the students’ main priority was to desperately 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.
Promoting social integration
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 and 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. That, in turn, made these financially struggling 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 proactively provide the space and opportunities to encourage social connection on campus. Social networking on campus would certainly help disadvantaged students who have limited social and cultural capital. Research shows that developing these students’ social connections can be an important factor in them becoming successful university students.
Universities have a role to play
Universities have an obligation to ensure that their students get the most out of the degree experience. This helps them to produce well-rounded graduates. How, then, should institutions rise to the challenge of helping students who are forced into employment as a priority 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 existing funding schemes only pay out after the academic year commences. Others only confirm student funding once term has started. Many students are not even able to get past the hurdle of paying upfront registration fees.
So, 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 burden and stress of students trying to secure financial aid while also trying to cope with their academic and other commitments. These include finding a part time job and addressing personal issues such as accommodation, food and living expenses.
Towards great graduates
The best universities want to produce the sort of graduates who can do great things for their country and community. To do this, institutions must realise that financial stress is a terrible burden – one which distracts potentially excellent graduates from their academic goals.