Does financial assistance undermine academic success? Experiences of ‘at risk’ students in a South African university

  • Samukelisiwe Mngomezulu School of Education University of KwaZulu Natal
  • Rubby Dhunpath Teaching and Learning Office University of KwaZulu Natal
  • Nicholas Munro School of Applied Human Sciences University of KwaZulu Natal
Keywords: Financial assistance, academic success


In the current #FeesMustFall activism, financial relief and support for higher education students are promoted as strategies to enhance access, persistence and progression in higher education. However, despite the increases in government and allied funding for higher education students, high-attrition and unsustainably low graduation rates persist. This reality has dire consequences for individual students, their families and the capacity of higher education to meet the development needs of the country. This article draws on data from an ethnographic study which used interpretive methods to explore the academic experiences of South African university students who despite receiving financial assistance for their studies, continued to be classified ‘at-risk’ of academic failure and exclusion. The findings suggest that an ostensibly positive outcome (such as receiving financial assistance) may have unintended negative academic consequences, including increasing students’ risk of academic exclusion, by virtue of the tendency for such funds to be utilised to ameliorate family poverty. While the cultural capital framework is a valuable tool in understanding student spending behaviours from economically advantaged communities, its explanatory power diminishes when applied to students from low socio-economic backgrounds, who manage competing demands on their student funding. The authors signal the need for higher education institutions to design alternative funding models and interventions to curb financial illiteracy in order to minimise the potential for misappropriation of financial assistance, which compromises academic success.
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