Study finds no link between bursaries and student success

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A new study challenges much of the received wisdom about what it takes for students to succeed at university, concluding that there is no link between bursary funding, or money awarded on the basis of need, and student success.

The paper, “Student Funding and Student Success: A case study of a South African university”, published in the October edition of the South African Journal of Higher Education, suggests that while matric results are a poor indicator of success, students who are accommodated in official residences are more likely to graduate within the minimum time than those who are not.

The study, which aimed to conduct an exploratory study into the current South African undergraduate student funding model employed by one university for the purposes of improving efficiency and effectiveness, calls into question the shift to fee-free tuition in the higher education sector as a means, inter alia, of improving graduation rates among poor students. 

In December last year, after ongoing student protest, the ANC government lowered the family income threshold for students who qualify for fee-free higher education in South Africa. 

Research parameters

Analysing over 8,000 undergraduates in the 2011 cohort at a higher education institution in South Africa and tracking their progress over three years – the minimum time to complete an undergraduate degree – the research, conducted by Anban Naidoo from the University of the Free State and University of Pretoria, and Professor Tracey McKay from the University of South Africa, found no relationship between the presence, or the value, of individual student bursary funding and throughput rates. 

Importantly, the only positive correlation between amount funded and academic success existed in the case of bursaries awarded specifically on academic merit and performance. 

The study also established that there is a statistically significant relationship between being placed in a student residence and academic performance and throughput. In other words, students accommodated in official student residences were more likely to graduate within the minimum time than those who were not.

Pressure to help

As the authors noted, universities are under mounting pressure to help students find ways to fund their studies. 

“It is claimed that many of the 50 percent of students who drop out of higher education institutions in South Africa do so for financial reasons (Styan 2014). So, it is argued that students are being excluded from higher education due to insufficient funds,” the authors write.

“Consequently, there is great pressure on universities to help such students, so funding tertiary students is now a top priority (Aydin 2014). In many cases, institutions of higher education are now forced to (somehow) find money or risk riots, violent disruptions and reputational damage if they do not. That this is unsustainable has been reported by many vice-chancellors, one of whom is Professor Ihron Rensburg of the University of Johannesburg (Jansen 2017).”

The paper argues that current student funding models need to be examined against the backdrop of the need to help students “to convert their educational aspirations into reality, as well as pressure on tertiary institutions to use their own resources to effect transformation” owing to declining state subsidies and higher student numbers.

Non-financial challenges

Importantly, it highlights the fact that disadvantaged students do not fail “only because of financial issues”, but because they face significant challenges which include an inability to cope with the academic programme as a result of poor basic education, a lack of intrinsic motivation to acquire a tertiary education, and poor course choices which lead to lack of motivation and dropouts.

The study revealed “numerous challenges” with the existing funding mechanism, in particular the fact that some students were “clearly” being awarded multiple or high value bursaries, totally unrelated to their academic performance. 

“In addition, and deeply problematically, the results also show that there are many cases where students perform well academically but do not receive adequate funding,” the authors write.

Indebting students

In terms of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), the study found that the value of the funding given to students was inversely correlated with academic success. “Thus, it may be that NSFAS is indebting students without enabling them to gain a tertiary qualification,” it said. 

It should be noted that NSFAS conditions have been revised this year since the study was undertaken, but the principles of allocation – financial need and matric results – remain the same. 

The study argues that a student funding model needs to consider carefully what additional factors can be used to allocate funding rather than simply need.

“In particular, strategic considerations should focus on how to maximise the impact of the limited funding available, rather than on simply finding more money for all financially needy students (Forster 2008). It may be possible that by allocating funding more effectively, academic performance will be enhanced (Kinnucan et al 2006),” the authors argue.

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