Meeting basic needs – A first step to student success

While research shows that funded students have a better success rate because their basic needs are more likely to be met, they still need a range of other support mechanisms and structures to ensure they achieve their potential at South African universities. Student analytics – which provides a clearer picture of student needs – can help.

Opening the fourth Siyaphumelela 2018 Conference in Johannesburg on 12 June, Minister of Higher Education and Training Naledi Pandor said student analytics can help to develop a more finely-tuned understanding of student needs, and help governments to put data-informed initiatives in place to better support students toward success.

Siyaphumelela (‘We Succeed’) is a programme coordinated by the South African Institute for Distance Education and funded by the Kresge Foundation, aimed at improving capacity at South African universities to use data analytics to improve student success.

Its annual conference aims to promote a national discourse on student success initiatives in the five partner institutions: The University of the Witwatersrand, the University of Pretoria, Nelson Mandela University, the University of the Free State and the Durban University of Technology.

As the only conference focusing on the use of analytics to promote student success in Sub-Saharan Africa, the conference provides a platform for international and local experts and practitioners to discuss evidence-based practices and national systemic interventions aimed at student success. This year’s gathering focused on basic needs and student success, leadership for student success, and design for student success.

Pandor said the Department of Higher Education and Training’s latest 2015 undergraduate cohort study published on 31 March 2018 makes it clear that funded students have a better success rate.

“Students who are inadequately funded experience great challenges in regard to food security, suitable accommodation, and ability to obtain textbooks and other resources. These tend to be poor black working-class students. We need to develop models of funding and support that address their needs,” she said.

Pandor said she was optimistic that the government’s new full-cost bursary scheme for students whose family income is under ZAR350,000 (US$26,000) per year will improve student outcomes.

“I am optimistic that this new DHET [Department of Higher Education and Training] bursary scheme will transform student success. We need to research its impact, and will be putting a longitudinal research study in place that investigates implementation over the next few years.”

Collective responsibility

“However, students also need additional academic support and I hope that universities will continue to provide it. Recent research on student expenses in our universities suggests much more work is needed to achieve transformation. While we are on an upward trajectory, we still need to improve throughput rates.

“We now have a collective responsibility in university education to ensure that most students graduate with a quality degree. To do this means taking responsibility for our students’ success. It means that we have to understand our students’ needs,” said Pandor.

In a recorded interview, Executive Director of the South African Institute for Distance Education (SAIDE) Jenny Glennie said student success was “a multifaceted endeavour” which moved all the way from issues such as food security and other basic needs through to academic performance and finance.

She said the government’s new comprehensive bursary scheme which would be available to a much bigger pool of candidates, would see students receive money not only for fees, but for books, travel, food and accommodation.

However, there were other challenges, beyond finances, for students, she said. One of these was the fact that many first-generation students, who now make up a significant proportion of university populations, frequently experience universities as “strange” and “alienating”.

“Our universities now have a very different profile to those in 1994. At some of the historically white universities, 80-90% of students at that time were white. We have a different profile now, which means the universities need to change to make sure they are more friendly and less alienating.”

Glennie also said many students come from schools that do not prepare them adequately for university study. “There are often quite big gaps in their knowledge that students need to work through in order to be successful,” she said.

Hungry students

As was the case in all of the previous conferences, students played a prominent role in the recent 2018 conference, expressing deep concern in particular over the high incidence of food insecurity at institutions of higher learning in South Africa.

According to a conference statement, testimonials and presentations from students across the country revealed that large segments of the student population are struggling because they have no food to eat owing to limited finances.

In a presentation that received wide coverage in the local media, final-year food and nutrition student Sboniso Ngcobo discussed the findings of a study conducted by the Food Intervention Programme at the Durban University of Technology which found that students in his class were either overweight or underweight.

“This clearly demonstrated to me that students have unhealthy eating habits. When I further enquired [about] the reasons for this, most students said they eat what is readily and cheaply available such as Amagwinya (vetkoek) while some said they had no money to buy food at all so went hungry most of the time,” he said.

However, while some students were normal weight, his research further found that their health and behavioural profile were influenced by the availability of food in terms of quality, price and availability of money to purchase it.

According to the statement, the overwhelming consensus emanating from academics attending the 2018 Siyaphumelela conference was that the majority of students going hungry are those from poor backgrounds, from low quintile schools and are often first-generation students in their families.

In response, SAIDE said it would investigate a call made at the conference for a food security or sovereignty forum as more universities such as the University of the Witwatersrand and the Durban University of Technology were now harvesting fruit and vegetables on campuses as a food security measure.

Beyond South Africa

In her presentation, Professor Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University in Philadelphia in the United States, highlighted the fact that students in the United States were also struggling to meet their basic needs.

For example, a 2018 study by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, founded by Goldrick-Rab, found that among 20,000 students in 35 universities across 14 states, 36% were food insecure, 36% were housing insecure and 9% were homeless.

She said in both South Africa and the US, students experiencing basic needs insecurity spend as much time on their academic work, but more time working and less time sleeping. She said it was important to integrate the security of students’ basic needs into the student engagement framework of an institution.

She said similar programmes to the 'No Student Hungry Programme' started in 2011 at the University of the Free State in South Africa, which gives a modest food allowance and access to one daily meal on campus, were being evaluated in Boston and Houston in the United States.

Photo credit: University of the Witwatersrand