Ruswa, Anesu Sam (2017). 'Identifying Dimensions and Indicators of Student Poverty in South Africa' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.




Author: Anesu Ruswa

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Institutional Affiliation: PhD Fellow, Centre for Research on Higher Education and Development (CRHED), University of the Free State, South Africa 

Category: Young scholar meets senior scholar session

Title: Identifying Dimensions and Indicators of Student Poverty in South Africa

Keywords: multidimensional student poverty, capabilities, measurement, higher education


This paper stems from a wider PhD project in which I aim to create a multidimensional student poverty index at a South African university using the Individual Deprivation Measure (Wiser, et al., 2016) and the Alkire-Foster  (Alkire, et al., 2015) class of measures as guiding methodologies. The South African higher education sector is currently plagued with waves of protests sparked mainly by discontent with the way students who qualify for funding support are identified and assisted by the government and other stakeholder. In as much as the government, through its various student funding arms, has come up with models and thresholds they use to identify sstudents who qualify for funding support; these have not been accepted fully by students hence the cycles of protests witnessed from 2015 to present. This paper responds to this plight by discussing the main arguments that deal with the issue of identification and measurement of poverty among tertiary students in South Africa using one institution as a case study.


 Although there have been a number of studies which look into student poverty(Letseka & Maile, 2008; Pillay, 2016),there has not been much published work which addresses multidimensional student poverty in South Africa. The study therefore fills this gap by identifying various dimensions of student poverty and their respective indicators as well as highlighting the inaptness of current methods in identifying accurately students who are in need. The over-arching focus of the paper is particularly on the methodologies followed in creating indicators which reflect both the incidence and intensity of student poverty.  To that end, the paper theoretically and empirically addresses some of the reasons why South African students are discontented with existing models of poverty identification. Concurrently a gap in literature is filled by providing a methodology which can be used to identify students who qualify for funding support.


The PhD study where this paper is drawn from uses an exploratory-sequential mixed methods methodology. In this paper I present the process and findings of the initial qualitative phase of the study which focused on the identification of the dimensions and indicators of student poverty. Qualitative data was collected during in-depth interviews with three purposively sampled key stakeholders in student affairs as well as from three sets of guided focus groups each with six students from diverse fields of study and backgrounds. The qualitative data collection process was guided by the capabilities approach in general and the Individual Deprivation Measure in particular. Drawing on these methodologies, students were thus given opportunities to democratically deliberate on the possible dimensions of student poverty and come up with corresponding indicators for the cited dimensions.


The paper begins with a discussion of the merits of various welfare economics theories which offer insight into multidimensional student poverty. I advocate for student poverty to be understood and addressed from a human development perspective particularly through the lens of the capabilities approach. The unique strengths which set the capabilities approach apart and above other approaches in evaluating multidimensional student poverty include particularly its focus on individual freedoms as the fundamental basis for societal freedoms, the exaltation of student voice in defining what students view as poverty among many others cited in the paper. I introduce the Individual Deprivation Measure as a particularly generative methodology for studying student poverty and thereafter present the dimensions and indicators of student poverty that were identified through the qualitative component of the study. With a focus on the methodologies used as well as the dimensions and indicators identified, this paper therefore also contributes to the field of participatory poverty assessment.

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