Illustration by Quan Nham.

Severely Understaffed, Student Finance Is Failing Our Students

Students regularly suffer unexplainable charges and holds, get billed incorrectly and experience delays for payments, including payroll and stipends, leading to months of financial and mental vulnerability.

Feb 20, 2021

In August 2020, Simran Parwani, Class of 2021, received a retroactive charge of $5,902 for spring 2020. Parwani is on partial aid, and her bills had indicated that all her dues had been paid in full before the academic year ended. Confused, she requested an explanation from NYU Abu Dhabi’s Student Finance department, who left numerous emails unanswered over the summer. Before fall 2020 kicked off, Parwani’s course registrations were placed on hold for the semester, and she was unable to change any of her classes, impacting her academic plans for the semester. Asked to recall the impact of this situation on her wellbeing, Parwani struggled to articulate herself, noting that even thinking about the situation now induces too much stress.
“The experience was incredibly stressful as a senior trying to plan out my graduation requirements,” Parwani said. “Additionally, the prospect of paying nearly $6,000 more unexpectedly after believing I paid my bill for the year in full filled me with panic. All I asked for was an explanation of the charge and whether they could modify the hold on my account so I could register for classes. Not receiving this communication sent me to a place of anger where it was difficult to recall the positive aspects of NYUAD, which was not a place I wanted to be in as a graduating senior.”
Parwani’s experience highlights just how intimately mental and financial wellbeing are connected. In a campus where an overwhelming amount of the student body depends on at least some amount of financial aid to pursue their education, Student Finance has a disproportionate responsibility over the wellbeing of the student body. Time and time again, however, student finance has come up short. Students regularly suffer unexplainable charges and holds, get billed incorrectly and experience delays for payments, including payroll and stipends, leading to months of financial and mental vulnerability.
And while these issues themselves are extremely stressful, many students are also impacted by the lack of communication that accompanies them. On NYUAD’s online student groups, a cursory search for “Student Finance” throws up dozens of posts complaining of multiple unresponded emails, vague and impersonal communication as well as unattended calls.
This uncertainty can be crippling. A student on full aid who chose to remain anonymous received a bill for $34,000 mailed to their home. Anxious, the student emailed Student Finance who responded with a “vague and confusing email.” No further communication forthcoming, they kept stressfully checking their bursar balance until one day when it went down to $0. “That was the end of it,” they said. “I was no longer in debt, but I never had that closure from the email or someone saying ‘hey, its okay.’”
More recently, Student Finance’s handling of the move away from Wirecard as its prepaid card supplier has left many students financially insecure. This change was necessary, as students have long suffered from the company’s poor security, losing tens of thousands of dirhams and going through extreme financial uncertainty and anxiety as a result.
The implementation of this change, however, came with a lot of caveats: the change was sprung on students very suddenly, who were asked to manually withdraw all money from their Wirecards in just seven days. Students on payroll had to provide alternate banking details to the university and others had to wait “6-8 weeks” before they could receive new cards.
This threw up a number of problems. Not everyone was comfortable withdrawing large amounts of cash from their accounts, especially in the short span of seven days. Additionally, not everyone has a second banking option in the UAE available to them. The alternative — using banks in their home countries — involves paying hefty foreign transfer fees and losing money to disadvantageous exchange rates. And so, some students opted to wait out the “6-8 week” period before they could access their savings and receive payroll on their new cards.
We are now nearing the end of the 11th week since the email announcing suspension of Wirecard services went out, and the new cards are nowhere to be found. Students, who had budgeted for the 6-8 week suspension, have been left out to dry without any real explanation or any attempt by Student Finance to financially support them. And all this has happened in the middle of a pandemic and economic recession that has left many students financially vulnerable.
Aasna Sijapati, Class of 2021, is one of the students who has not been paid for 3 months. When Sijapati reached out to Student Finance in January with questions about the payment process, two of her emails went unanswered. Early this month, Sijapati was finally able to submit her banking details. Two weeks later, she is still waiting to receive her first payment. Student Finance, meanwhile, has not responded to her once. “It’s so frustrating and distressing to not only [go unpaid] for my work, but also to not hear anything back from them,” Sijapati said.
The problems aren’t exclusive to individuals either. Given the changes to the academic calendar this year, students on partial aid who are required to take a summer course are still unclear about what the charges will be. Given that many of these students require student loans to finance their education, this uncertainty is particularly stressful. “It does freak me out a bit that the cost will be something super absurd and having to confront that problem is something I’m not looking forward to, should it happen,” said Addie Mae Villas, Class of 2024.
When Student Finance does respond, it often tries to pass the buck to other departments. An alumni from the Class of 2019, who chose to stay anonymous, is unable to access their transcripts because of a hold for unpaid charges. The problem, however, is that the alumni paid the charge before graduating. A year of back and forths with Student Finance has produced no solutions, and the student is often told to reach out to other departments.
“At some point, the miscommunication between departments just made me feel like a ping pong ball,” the alumni said. “The truth is, I gave up at the end. There might be something more that I can do and I have to figure it out soon otherwise my graduate schools won't accept me.”
Admittedly, working in a pandemic is not easy, and offices around the world have had to adjust. But the problems with Student Finance run far deeper than the challenges of working from home. Vatsa Singh, Class of 2023, who served on the Student Finance Working Group in fall 2020, noted that Student Finance is extremely understaffed and lacks the resources to cope with the volume of work they have. “I’m slightly more sympathetic towards them than the average person,” said Singh. “It’s more of an understaffing issue than an incompetence one.”
How has a department so crucial to student wellbeing on campus remained so understaffed for so long? When NYUAD recruits its students with a need blind financial aid package, it takes on the duty of looking after their financial, and consequently, their mental wellbeing for all four years. Leaving its Student Finance department crippled to the extent that it fails to adequately cater to the wellbeing of the student body is a dereliction of that duty on the part of the senior administration.
Given the situation at Student Finance, I wonder if the ideal of enabling anyone — despite their financial status — to receive an education is merely just rhetoric, and whether the real cost of this education is paid through the pain that accompanies this financial uncertainty.
Sobha Gadi is Senior Opinion Editor. Email him at
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