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Change the world

18/01/2024

Thousands of university students may face sleepless nights due to money worries as they start their academic year.

 

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) enables achieving matriculants whose family income lies below a certain threshold to study further.

However, payment errors as well as fraud and corruption investigations have seen NSFAS hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Seeing the plight of her fellow students at Nelson Mandela University, Gqeberha psychologist Melody Peters, 42, decided to research the financial wellbeing of NSFAS-funded students.

A chance encounter in her honours year triggered this, when Peters saw a financial aid office administrator delivering bad news to a group of students that there was no money available for the last month of the academic year.

Frequent university shutdowns and interruptions by unhappy NSFAS students are often in the news, but Peters wanted to know the deeper story.

Financial wellness is under-explored. Poverty is one of the most pressing problems on a global scale, and more attention needs to go to the wellbeing of students from a previously disadvantaged background,” says Peters.

This is particularly important as NSFAS students now make up more than 60% of the undergraduate university population.

She titled her study: NSFAS-funded Students’ Financial Wellness Perceptions and Experiences as a Component of Holistic Wellbeing, work that saw her win an Excellence Award from Nelson Mandela University for her coursework Master’s in Counselling Psychology. The study set out to determine the impact of financial issues on other domains of wellbeing.

“There is a high level of stress. More than that, there is distress that comes from financial difficulties and it can be severe,” she says.

She saw the reality of student hunger, a problem at universities across South Africa. She also noticed different levels within the NSFAS student group. For some it was “pocket money” as their parents would buy food or provide accommodation. Others, however, regularly went hungry.

 “One student used to ‘stretch’ her money by drinking sugar water when she had no money for food,” says Peters.

As a psychologist, she knows that the late teens and early 20s are when youngsters develop their social identity, and peer pressure is at its peak. However, she was still surprised by the high levels of social insecurity and self-consciousness.

“They are hiding constantly because they do not want the others to see that they do not fit in,” says Peters.

 “They compare themselves to others and feel inadequate due to not having money to pay for social events, a birthday present, the latest phone perhaps, or even appropriate clothing.”

 Poor communication and mistakes with financial aid were another major source of frustration. “The literature, and my study, confirms that there’s a real difficulty between NSFAS and financial aid offices of universities. So many students say they don't know what's going on, or why they don't have money. They can stand in line at the financial aid office for an entire day, missing class, to find an answer. Or they contact NSFAS and don’t get information back.”

Social justice was an important theme. “I wanted to do a study that connects wellbeing to social justice. Justice defined not only in what is given, but how,” says Peters.

In other words, although the financial support of NSFAS can get students into university, it may not be enough to guarantee their success if how it is given continues to cause distress.

Every NSFAS mistake is seen as an injustice which impacts the holistic wellbeing of the students involved. Despite this, students showed gratitude towards NSFAS for giving them the opportunity to study further.

Peters also looked at family support, and found a two-way relationship. For example, parents would borrow money to pay for transport and initial living expenses with the understanding that when the NSFAS allowance came in, their child would pay it back. When funding was delayed, this brought extra pressure.

“Every time NSFAS makes a mistake, the parents send them money and then, when the NSFAS money comes in, they have to send it back home.”

When NSFAS makes mistakes, she found, “they do not want to phone home, it breaks them, degrades them. Some would rather stay silent and suffer.”

Students also overcame hardship to reap rewards despite their financial struggles, and individual personal agency played a role in this. “Their level of resilience was exceptional, they were pushing themselves academically despite difficulties financially, socially, and relationally. One said that ‘I have to show them that I belong here – look at my marks’.”

Having travelled extensively overseas, Peters gave up a secure job in Asia to return to South Africa and enrol at Nelson Mandela University. Originally from KwaZulu-Natal, where she matriculated, Peters spent her undergraduate years at the same university in Gqeberha. “I’d been out of the country for 14 years, travelling, and I came back to study because I wanted to do meaningful work,” she says.

She has found her passion in psychology. In 2020, Peters won the Nelson Mandela University Vice-Chancellor’s award for best postgraduate student in the category of Social Sciences and Humanities for her BA Honours in Psychology.

Although her Master’s was an exploratory study with a small sample, Peters and her supervisors – Lisa Currin and Dr Hanna van Lingen – believe it will be extremely useful for further research directions.

“Mandela University has pioneered student wellness in South Africa since the 1990s, providing a rich heritage for research. It would be so awesome to take some of these aspects and run with them for further research. I am an academic at heart.” 

Contact information
Mrs Debbie Derry
Deputy Director: Communication
Tel: 041 504 3057
debbie.derry@mandela.ac.za