The dire struggles of students from low-income families

A study by a team of researchers from three universities has revealed the dire struggles South African university students from low-income families experience. This includes lack of funds to purchase electronic devices and clothing as well as being exposed to crime.

However, these students show resilience by making use of financial aid schemes, peer support groups and their universities’ financial aid schemes to survive.

The study involved University of Venda researchers Dr Fhatani Ravhuhali, N Phellecy Lavhelani; Tshimangadzo Sikhwari; Dr Nkhangweleni Gloria Dama; Tshifhiwa Christinah Matodzi; Dr Tshidaho Manyage; and Lutendo Roseph Nendauni from Cape Peninsula University of Technology. It was titled, ‘A self-determination theoretical approach into survival strategies of on-campus and off-campus students from low-income families’ and was published in the South African Journal of Higher Education.

The study shows that many students from rural-based universities are drawn from provinces which are primarily regarded as rural, due to underdevelopment which is blamed on the legacy of apartheid.

“Moreover, a vast number of these students are enrolled at universities as first-generation and largely come from low-income families, characterised by elements of poverty.”

Such students experience literacy problems as a consequence of the quality of the high school they attended. The findings of the study indicate that poor infrastructure at home exposes students to poor sanitation and other health hazards, as well as inconducive study environments.

One of the students said: “Poor infrastructure negatively impacts me because I get home exhausted and, at home, we do not have the necessary resources to help me with my studies, like the internet and a library.”

The researchers refer to a study that indicated that the unavailability of teaching and learning services is a “pervasive factor for out-of-campus students in rural and densely populated urban settings, particularly where internal migration is high in remote rural areas”.

There is evidence that high-quality infrastructure improves learning as well as students’ academic performance and reduces dropout rates.

The researchers refer to other studies (see Earthman, Cash, Lemaster, 1996) that indicate that a household with sufficient learning tools, clean water and a calm environment is imperative for the academic success of students from low-income families. “This proves that infrastructure and learning are somewhat connected.”

Lack of basic sanitation

They indicate that other research reveals that vast rural parts of Africa experience lack of basic sanitation, which adversely affects students as both sanitation and education are linked. A lack of adequate sanitation not only leads to diseases, but also affects students’ class attendance. “Students in this rural-based university are not an exception because the majority come from rural geographically dispersed areas wherein service delivery is a problem.”

A participant said: “Yes, some fail because the study area is poor and there is a shortage of electricity so they cannot study.” Most students come from rural areas where there is inadequate water supply, and this is the cause of sanitation challenges. A student said: “Shortage of water, poor sanitation, electricity [are] not always available ...”

Travelling long distances is a major challenge faced by students staying off-campus. Participants noted that, after travelling long distances, they are exhausted, while they are burdened by high transport costs.

One student said: “It gets very annoying and tiring because you get drained by the long distance travelled and, when you get to campus, all you want to do is to sleep; obviously, this takes my time, so I end up left behind.” This means that the long-distance travel to the university affects the students’ academic performance.

The researchers again refer to the findings that many students in Africa drop out of institutions of learning due to the distances they have to travel. This results in underprivileged students losing “any prospect of a better future for themselves and their immediate families”.

One student said: “The time I spend travelling, I could have got information from the library. In other words, I could have used the time for [academic study].”

A lack of food

However, some of the challenges faced by on-campus students include hunger, lack of funds to buy food, as well as poor accommodation. Some students cannot purchase food parcels as they do not have cash to maintain themselves. This is despite some of them having bursaries, but the allowances given to them are inadequate to support them through the month.

Furthermore, the lack of food has a ripple effect: it affects the students’ concentration and, therefore, their class attendance.

These issues result in “students feeling depressed and having low esteem, while others end up dropping out of their studies”, noted the researchers.

One participant said: “Once you start to skip classes, you will fail and sometimes end up dropping out.” Another student said: “For me, it is lack of money to buy sanitary pads and all the basic cosmetics girls need for hygienic purposes; it affects us as students ... especially females.”

A student complained that they eat unhealthily as they do not have the funds to purchase food. “You end up eating unhealthy foods such as fat cakes because that is the only thing you can afford.

“On top of that, you can’t even afford to buy clothes, since there is no uniform at varsity, so this makes it difficult for me to attend classes with the same pair of jeans. This makes me feel uncomfortable.”

One student highlighted that the challenges of not having enough money for rent, food, clothes and electronic devices, are affecting his mental health. Many students live in overcrowded conditions, where one room has three or four occupants, as this is a means of saving costs.

One student said: “Due to lack of accommodation on campus, sometimes I bunk classes because of lack of transport and the money to travel.”

Coping mechanisms

The respondents provided strategies that they are using to cope, despite the challenges they are facing during their studies.

They highlighted that they are using the library to study, apply for National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) bursaries, assistance from a feeding scheme, confiding in friends with similar challenges and not conceding to peer pressure (avoiding competition with others).

Respondents felt that off-campus residences are not as secure as those on campus. They noted that off-campus residences are linked to high crime rates, with females being vulnerable to rape.

Due to high crime rates, students are forced to leave library facilities early. A student said: “It impacts on us very negatively because you might find that you leave campus late due to late classes and can be attacked by thieves.”

The researchers said that the safety of students and how they are subjected to crime has been widely reported in the media, especially in some rural universities in South Africa.

Meanwhile, the study revealed that crime experienced by off-campus students is not only restricted to South Africa, but to other countries.

The researchers point to the United States, where students experience crime, with laptops being stolen from residences, while others are robbed at gunpoint in their residences.

The team of researchers predict that, since there is more financial support for students, more are enrolling at higher education institutions, meaning that the number of students with low socio-economic backgrounds living in crime-prone societies will increase.

One of the coping strategies by these students is not imitating the lifestyles of other students but finding friends who are in a similar situation. One student said: “Finding a friend or friends who are in a situation like mine helps ease challenges. For example, if we are three, we are able to rent a room at a cheaper price and buy food together, making it cheaper than being alone.”

Furthermore, being unable to fit in socially may result in feelings of distress.

The researchers recommend that mentoring and tutoring programmes for first-year students be strengthened to prepare students, including those from low-income families, to increase their chances of success.

“It would be a prudent and worthwhile exercise that communities of practices be formed wherein academic development practitioners, in partnership with residence staff, assist students to become comfortable in the institutional environment.”

Furthermore, the university needs to adopt financial schemes and source funding to aid students from low-income families who do not meet the criteria for government financial schemes such as NSFAS, the researchers said.