Poverty in the Shadows -the students without financial aid

- in Nyheter

Students in Lund keep going despite CSN pulling their aid. Without money, shame and poverty are part of their everyday life. Lundagård has met the students living on the breadline.

Text: Filippa Werner Sellbjer – Translation: Carl-William Ersgård

December 2009, and David cannot afford to go home. For a week, he has been living on a packet of spaghetti and ketchup. When the ketchup ran out, he was forced to just eat pasta, portioned out so as to not make him starve. Last month’s rent is unpaid, and the next one is already here. David’s world is falling apart, one dime after the other. How did he end up here?

Illustration: Cecilia Hansson

A year before, David is doing history studies. It is fun, and he eats lunch with his friends from school every day. The exams are going well, but he has always found it difficult to do solitary work at home. He procrastinates and cannot get the ball rolling. A year later, David starts a bachelor’s in physics and already has hand-ins from the course in history lagging. Soon afterwards, CSN pulls the plug on his financial aid.
“All along, I knew that if only I could scrape together the credits from the last course, I would get aid again. Maybe that feeling caused it all. The idea that everything would work out made me take things less than serious”, David says.
After losing his CSN, David made do for a while through his savings. But since he was hiding his situation from his parents, he could not ask them for financial help. He was forced to cut down on increasingly more basic things.
“At the beginning, I kept it all. But as time went by, I shaved off luxury items like meat, snacks and bread. In the end, I realised I could afford only some potatoes”, David says.

Suddenly he could no longer pay rent. The guy David stayed with said that he could wait until he had gotten his credits. But David found physics harder than expected and the courses increasingly intense. Autumn kept going, and he could not keep up with the assignments as they came. Stress and guilt ate everything.
“I was very angry with myself. Of course, it hit me mentally. Above all, not telling my parents and living with a lot of debt. I was agitated almost all the time.”
David has always been an introvert, but after losing his CSN, he closed up even more. He found it difficult to talk serious matters with people he had only known for a year, and he was not exactly up for asking his friends for money.
“My friends knew that CSN pulled the plug, but they did not know the extent of it. They should have suspected something when I stopped going out for food. But you don’t exactly tell people that you´re in the red”, David says.
Suddenly, Christmas arrives and all money is gone. He has nothing to eat, and the situation seems hopeless to solve. As a last resort, he calls his sister asking for money to pay for the ticket home. During the holiday, he tells his parents that he lost his CSN.
“They had suspected something since I pulled away, but they had no idea why. When I told them, they said ‘was that all!’. Then we celebrated Christmas and ate food. It was the best meal I ever had.

When David had told his parents, he quit his programme and started working instead, which felt all right. He holds that he might not have been able to finish it anyway, being so far behind. At the same time, he thinks that the stress surrounding everything else might be the reason for his studies going so poorly. If he could change anything looking back, he would have wanted someone to talk to during his time without CSN.
“Someone to ask for help would have been good. Someone to tell me that if I don’t get the credits this month, I will have to do something else. You can’t let it go on. It might not sound so helpful, but in this situation, it is”, David says.

Illustration: Cecilia Hansson

Insufficient monitoring

According to a CSN report on changed study result testing from 2015, 13 percent of students at university level did not get the credits needed to be granted financial aid during 2013-2014. For men, the number was 17 percent, and for women, 10 percent. The report stated gender as one of the largest contributing factors when it comes to approving a student. Since more than every eighth student is declined aid, the question is how many people choose to stay in a programme despite their failed application. This is something that CSN is not looking at.
“When you are not applying for aid, we do not collect numbers on whether you stay in a programme or not. The same way, we do not see how many finishes and get an exam”, says Carl-Johan Stolt from CSN.
He holds that it is not part of CSN’s assignment to manage that statistic.
“CSN’s mission is towards aid recipients. The Swedish Higher Education Authority is responsible for statistics regarding higher education, but there is no institution with a clear responsibility for statistics regarding students who can no longer receive financial aid. In such cases, an institution would have to examine that question on their own”, Carl-Johan Stolt says.

As a student, you can get loans with fairly low fees at Kreditkassan. How many students got in touch with Kreditkassan because of a declined application to CSN is not, however, available information.
Sofie Selin, administrator at Kreditkassan, tells us that they cannot ask their debtors why they need money, but that many choose to anyway.
“My assessment is that most of our debtors got in touch with us due to problems with CSN, especially people applying for the big loan of 20,000 SEK. I would guess that around 70-80 percent apply for that loan because of problems with CSN”, says Sofie Selin.

The amount being declined for aid was doubled after a reform that CSN made in 2010. Regulations were rewritten so that applicants must reach certain study results to get financial aid. Previously, lacking grades were compensated by an individual judgement from CSN whether students would probably finish their further studies. Not getting all the credits could also be forgiven if the cause was a wrong choice of programme or a fresh start after a study break. These are not applicable causes today. Nowadays, students must get 75 percent of the credits where they applied for aid, with somewhat lower demands during the first two semesters. A person with a certificate from Försäkringskassan proving sick-leave doesn’t have to get any credits during the period in question.

Illustration: Cecilia Hansson

“Not really something you are open with”

Anna is a student in Lund secretly living without financial aid. In her phone, she has a long list of smaller debts to her friends. Since they do not know that she is in short supply of money, she only says that she will ‘swish them later’. A twenty here, a fifty there. Little sums that she balances out to everyone at the end of the month, when she can afford it. If Anna goes to a nation, she does not bring her card to keep from buying anything. But people tend to go on about stuff, and sometimes she agrees to borrow money for a shot to not seem boring. And the debt goes up on her secret list.

Anna did not apply for financial aid for spring 2017 since she knew that she had not gotten enough credits the previous semester. Turbulence in here private life made her procrastinate, and suddenly it was too late to make up. Currently, she studies at 200 percent to quickly get her aid back. Meanwhile, she receives money from her mother. She has enough to eat and can pay rent, but since Anna has a horse to pay for, there is little left for anything else. She has a single mother with limited resources herself, and with Anna to pay for, things are tight for the both of them.

“I feel guilt since my mother usually doesn’t allow herself much. It feels sad being the reason for her worsened living standard and economy. She has worked hard for this money, and last semester I didn’t. Which is why we are in this situation”, Anna says.
Anna does not want any questions on why she failed her course since it feels hard to stand responsible for her results. That is why she has hidden her situation from most people, as her corridor mates. She finds having little money directly embarrassing.
“Worst of all is always thinking about people finding out. It has been a week since other people got their money, and I have 20 SEK left on my account. Not really something you are open with”, Anna says.

Since her mother provides for her, Anna finds it reasonable for her to decide what she does with the money. However, despite the logic of it all, it is annoying to not be in charge of your own money. Personal decisions, like going to a student ball, becomes a matter to discuss with your mother.
“This has put a strain on my relationship with my mother. We manage, it isn’t devastating, but at the moment we don’t get along as good as we used to, which is sad”, Anna says.

Åsa Probert, Studenthälsan
Photo: Linus Gisborn

Desperation and shame

Being left without financial aid is a common problem. At least if you ask Åsa Probert, curator at Student Health.
“It is good that this is being brought up into the open. It is a huge problem as we see it at Student Health”, Åsa Probert says.

She gives a split perspective on students without CSN. In part, there are people like Anna, who receives financial aid from their parents. These are usually not affected mentally to any greater degree. The large majority who get in touch do find the situation extremely troublesome, however. They are desperate to get their everyday life to work, and feel ashamed of being caught in that position. Therefore, many hide their problems from friends and family.
“Shame takes a lot of time and energy to hide, so we usually encourage them to tell parents and other close relations. Not mainly to borrow money, but to get the support you need from your surrounding”, Åsa Probert says.

In the cases where they manage to convince a student to tell others, this is usually the turning point that makes the student get back in the driver’s seat.
“Usually, students are met with a lot of understanding, normalising what was previously shameful”, Åsa Probert says.

Many students Åsa Probert comes in contact with says that they have not managed their studies because of previous mental unhealth. When their financial aid is removed, that is just another problem on the pile, making it all the more difficult to get back on track. A majority of students do not know that they must contact Försäkringskassan to explain their situation in order to save their CSN. She thinks that is because of a shame of feeling unwell and the students not taking mental ilness as seriously as physical illness.
“If you are so mentally unwell that you cannot study – and people with depression and more severe anxiety are – you have all the reasons to go on sick-leave”, Åsa Probert says.
She confirms that there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding how many choose to keep on studying without aid from CSN. None of the people Lundagård has spoken to got in contact with Student Health or any authority other than CSN for help.

Lund University Student Unions Association (Lus) has not spoken in depth about students living without aid from CSN.
“We haven’t had that specific issue up for discussion”, says Jack Senften, vice-chairperson at Lus.
However, he states that the organisation works for cutting up larger courses with only one examination into smaller parts, which might give students more than one shot at getting enough credits. He is also critical of the fact that students are not, as opposed to working people, covered by health insurance.
“If you don’t get enough credits, you´re out. We find it deeply problematic that students don’t have the same security as other groups”, Jack Senften says.

Illustration: Cecilia Hansson

An imaginary verdict

In a lecture hall at Maskinhuset is Jens. You cannot see it on him, but deep inside, he knows that he should not be there. He is a student, but a failed one. He has not managed his studies and cannot longer be part of the system. That is his experience of the time when he was without financial aid.
“Worst of all was the imaginary verdict. That my parents would be disappointed in me, and that my friends would see me as less than them. I convinced myself that I was basically useless”, Jens says.

When CSN pulled the plug, he scraped by on savings, and parents lent him money for rent. To save money, he cancelled any dates with friends costing money and ate quite boring meals, such as cabbage with chilli sauce.
“I was in physically good shape but felt mentally unwell. You can eat filling and nutritious meals on relatively little money. But all along, I knew I was a bad student.”

When Jens lost his CSN, he told his parents and close friends, just like the recommendation from Åsa Probert. His parents tried to support him by saying that he would have made the exams if he had studied more, but Jens was convinced that they were disappointed in him. In retrospect, he thinks they were just surprised that he found studies difficult. He had always been so diligent.
“I have always had the highest grades, but when I started university, it was like a slap in the face. I thought I followed all the fancy advice, but I didn’t understand how much you must study to pass”, Jens says.
Because of shame and his economic situation, he pulled away from people. He gave acquaintances all the possible excuses. At the end of the month, before others got their payment from CSN, he could be frank with having little money. At other times, he had to be more sweeping – saying that he was not well or just did not have the time.

Jens got through it all by taking an extra course on distance. A month after being declined aid from CSN, he got it back. His self-esteem is largely back to where it was, and he has completed the rest of his exams. His advice is to realise that you have more to give than your achievements.
“If you put all your self-worth into being clever, and end up in a situation where you can’t be that, you are suddenly nothing. You have to understand that you are more than a result of an exam”, Jens says.

Åsa Probert at Student Health agrees that the ideal to be clever makes many people losing CSN feel worse than people who do not have that ideal.
“The more important you think it is to be clever, the more ashamed you feel when you can’t. If you put that demand on yourself, the shame is that much more potent, and you will seek help from your surroundings more rarely”, Åsa Probert says.

David, Anna and Jens are all fictitious names.

About the author

Filippa Werner Sellbjer är reporter på Lundagård och var studentkrönikör från hösten 2016 till vintern 2017.