SA students hit hard by COVID-19

Forty-one percent of students were unable to buy their own food after tertiary institutions closed to limit the spread of COVID-19, with 40.1% of youth returning home during the hard lockdown last year.

Less than 1% reported that they had no place to stay.

These are some of the findings contained in the survey conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and Higher Health.

According to the HSRC’s Professor Sibusiso Sifunda, the survey explored the living situation, space to study, food security and access to healthcare of the youth in the post-school education and training (PSET) sector.

It targeted students from all universities, Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) and Community Education and Training (CET) colleges.

A total of 13 119 youth respondents aged between 18 and 35 answered online questions during the first wave of COVID-19 infections.

Sifunda said the majority of the participants were first-year students.

“The team realised it was quite important for first-years to feature in larger numbers because they were the group that was affected the most because they barely spent two months in university when the lockdown started, and they had to leave the campuses.”

Suitable place to study

According to the Professor, about half of the students (49.9%) reported that they had a suitable place to study during lockdown compared to the 29.3% who did not have one.  

“So, for about a third of the people, remote learning was not ideal for them at all,” Sifunda said.

In addition, the Professor said it was encouraging that 78.6% of students had access to regular access to electricity, even though 5.7% were living in the dark.

Meanwhile, 42.7% said they accessed the internet using data bundles provided by their institution and 29.2% were buying prepaid data.  

Only 3.5% said they did not have access to the internet, with 15% of those from TVET colleges.  

Food security

Sifunda said the study showed that food security was an issue during the lockdown.

The HSRC zoomed in on students who were unable to buy their own food over a period of 30 days.

According to the results, out of the 2 680 students who said they relied on food donations, nearly 10% said they were dependent on food parcels, while a further 14.9% said they only relied on handouts sometimes.

In addition, of the 2 683 who said they had no food and would go hungry on some days, 14.8% said it was a daily occurrence.  

“Food security during lockdown was quite a problem,” said Sifunda.

In addition, over 65% of students experienced mild to severe psychological distress.


Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister, Dr Blade Nzimande, said he was concerned about the impact of COVID-19 among first-year students.  

Meanwhile, the Minister said he was pleased that 42% thought they would be able to cope with their workload after lockdown, with older students being more confident than younger ones.

He also raised the problem of young people being carriers of the virus.

“From the results, we know that 53% thought they were at low risk of contracting COVID-19 and 15% perceived themselves as high risk.

“While they may be asymptomatic, they are at risk of transmitting to their parents and elderly grandparents.”

In addition, Nzimande welcomed the fact that over three quarters (78%) of the students said they did not engage in alcohol drinking and smoking as a coping mechanism.

“That’s a strong foundation in building a sober nation and also to do away with smoking…” the Minister said. –

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