Universities, government agents and members of the community should make a concerted effort to alleviate some of the burdens faced by students, particularly those from previously disadvantaged backgrounds, writes a postgraduate Matie student.
In January 1977 my father, at the age of nine, started school by mistake. My grandfather never intended sending him to school as he felt that his young son was destined to become a bricklayer, like himself, making a formal education an unnecessary tool for him.
I remember being told the story of my father’s school enrolment: a woman in his community had tasked herself with the responsibility of rounding up all children who looked to be of school-going age and enrolling them, without their birth certificates or the consent of their parents. Apparently, most parents in this impoverished township community in the Eastern Cape shared my grandfather’s sentiments. Today, over forty years later, the actions of this anonymous woman has changed the trajectories of a number of families, resulting in the upliftment of many of these children and their families in one generation. My father, as one of these children, is now a UCT alumnus holding a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemical Engineering as well as an Honours degree in Economics.
This anecdote contains a lesson of incredible significance, particularly for a country that faces problems such as high unemployment, low levels of skills and educational attainment and significant lags in technological advancements. The lesson is one we have had drummed into our ears countless times: Consider the possibility that the answers to our economic problems are trapped in the minds of children who do not have access to adequate education. What, then, are the barriers to receiving a good education? Who is left out? What can we do to rectify this? We have learnt that the solution is not just to open the doors of education to everyone on a policy level alone, but rather to do so on a more rounded, holistic level. We often overlook the impact of needs-based support, which can be both financial and emotional in nature.
‘My sponsor took care of all my problems’
Let us return to the story of the young boy from the Eastern Cape to illustrate this. The school teachers took a keen interest in this Grade 11 school boy, who excelled academically (and who often picked up mistakes in their test memos), and recommended him for a scholarship. This specific scholarship offered more than just money. Firstly, it would take him out of his township to a private school with a superior syllabus, offer him a place in a boarding school, and provide in-depth personal development, mentorship and career guidance, as well as trips to arts festivals and seminars across the country. This is how the son of a bricklayer could learn of professions such as engineering, accountancy and other sciences. He often boasts and says: “My sponsor took care of all my problems.”
There is a lot for us to learn from this. Simply sending an individual from a troubled background into a foreign school system is seldom a fruitful exercise. People who come from difficult and poor backgrounds and who do not have support systems face greater challenges when trying to further and complete their education. A recent problem which has come to light is the issue of food security. It has been largely unknown at many world-class universities that there are students who, despite being on bursaries, often go to class and write tests and exams unsure of where their next meal will come from. Women, with brilliant minds and bright futures, are often not able to attend classes or leave their rooms during some months because they cannot afford sanitary towels. Can you imagine counting the number of days you have missed class in a semester because you had not eaten or had not had access to proper sanitary products? These constraints undoubtedly have a significant impact on the nature of education that students receive during their time at school or university.
This sounds yet another alarm related to access on university campuses. The importance of wrap-around services needs to be emphasised: the kind of services that ensure students remain in the classroom should be targeted. Decisions in this area can determine the route a student’s career takes. The wraparound approach is one that incorporates caring into the philosophy of education, as advocated by Albert Education (2009). This is achieved through offering coordinated services and support in the university model. Now, this is not to say that these do not exist on campuses around the world, but these offices are often overcrowded and do not have all the resources needed to adequately assist all students facing problems. This often means that students who are in need are turned away. When speaking to those who work in student support environments, these individuals will often recall having to care for students out of their own pockets by either buying them food or toiletries, or paying for student transport to and from campus, as these are needs that the average bursary does not cover.
The actual economics of education
During my studies, I have focused on and researched the actual economics of education. I have investigated not just the cost of school fees, but the actual cost of schooling, which includes the cost of clothing, transport, food and cultural changes (i.e. the cost of ‘fitting in’). I have spent much time learning about how these factors can have a substantial impact on where children go to school and how their performance is affected. It is these factors which, if not addressed, place strain on individuals and households wishing to obtain better education. I write this with the intention of highlighting how important well-rounded, holistic support is on university campuses. In the United Kingdom, student support services have been identified as one of the key factors when auditing the overall quality of all services offered by a university – as, according to Bartram (2009), the personal development of students is an integral part of professional academics.
We have often heard of the ‘student experience’, which we believe to be homogeneous for all. We have recently learned, through movements like #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall, that it is dangerous to assume that all students are enjoying a similar university experience. In doing so, we become blind to the harsh realities that students from different backgrounds are facing – some of which can be solved through existing university structures with relative ease. It is important, in the view of Temple and co-authors (2014), for universities to understand that some students need more systematic support to complete their undergraduate courses and that there is a link between added support and academic performance.
Research conducted on student affairs, in Africa, has examined the professionalisation of student affairs, where student concerns and experiences (unrelated to academics) are handled in a dignified manner. This implies offering students services associated more with changing environments, leadership, personal development and personal care, suggest Pansiri and Sinkamba (2017). The depth of such services offered by student affairs offices needs to be taken into consideration, and should include services that ensure that the most basic needs of students are being met as well. These needs include food, transport and sanitary products, which disadvantaged students are sometimes forced to go without owing to severe budgetary constraints. The lack of these basic goods means that these students experience life completely differently compared to their peers on campus and therefore shapes their development differently.
With the demographic profile of students changing and diversifying on South African campuses, so do the experiences of the average student. Therefore, university policies and services should adjust accordingly. The trade-off that comes with these problems (uncovered in recent years) requires a significant shift of resources – something universities cannot manage owing to being resource constrained.
It is because of this that a concerted effort needs to be made by various university offices, government agents and members of the community to alleviate some of the burdens faced by students, particularly those from previously disadvantaged backgrounds and others who fall within vulnerable groups. Actions from these individuals can significantly affect the trajectories and life paths of students on campus.