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Quality university education is at risk because of the crisis in student accommodation


It’s tough getting accepted for study at a university. But for many students from poor families, that’s just the first hurdle: Finding safe, affordable accommodation close to campus can prove to be the toughest nut of all to crack.

There is a crisis of student accommodation at public universities that has led to widespread protests across the country. Some of these protests have been violent, leading to the destruction of infrastructure. The response of universities has been militarised, where more and more security is deployed to fight and push back the students. Campuses have become militarised zones, but what the universities do not realise is that by using militarised responses they are dealing with symptoms of the problem, which is violence, but not the problem itself.

Every year, scores of matriculants head out to universities across the country carrying no more than an acceptance letter which grants them an opportunity to pursue their education dreams. This is an exciting time for most students. Upon arrival, however, most of these young students are met with a different kind of challenge — finding accommodation. The accommodation has become very difficult for many young university entrants, far harder than getting accepted at the university in the first place. Many poor students are left at the mercy of private accommodation facilities that are either too expensive for them to afford or of such a low standard that safety is absolutely compromised.

Universities are struggling to deal with the problem of student accommodation. This is exacerbated by the fact that the rate of new entrants into universities over the past few years has been steadily increasing while the rate of construction of, or acquiring of new residence facilities, has not kept up with demand. Furthermore, there has been a shift in the demographics of first-time entering students as students from poorer backgrounds can now also access universities, a major shift for which universities were clearly not designed.

In his media briefing on 16 January 2020, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande claimed that 26 public universities will provide access to about 201,000 new entrants who hope to pursue further studies. It’s a safe bet that none of these universities has enough beds to cater for all these new students. In light of this increasing demand for university residences, some universities have had to cull their senior students at residences in favour of first-time students — but even these measures are barely enough. Students are left with little option but to use private accommodation. Not that there’s anything wrong with private accommodation facilities, particularly the university-accredited ones.

The problem with most university-accredited private accommodation facilities, however, is that because they are accredited, they charge exorbitant prices that are often out of reach for poor black students, leaving them at the mercy of “rogue” private landlords who can offer cheap accommodation with little security, comfort or space suitable for studying. The question of where do the students who cannot afford to pay the higher monthly rental fees at decent and accredited student accommodation establishments go is not an easy one to answer as student accommodation is a booming business for many landlords. Some even go to the extremes of sacrificing their homes for the extra income it brings.

Higher education as a system was designed in the past for the elite and those with money, and this still remains the case today. This is indicated by the cost of higher education, in particular the high cost of staying at a university. As such, in recent years universities have been forced to integrate poor and rich students through targeted programmes that seek to promote social cohesion. This integration happens with some degree of success inside the classroom as students from both poor and elite backgrounds, regardless of race, share study venues and learning material with ease; however, outside the classroom integration is proving to be much more difficult, especially when it comes to student accommodation.

The “haves” get better accommodation and the “have-nots” get the raw deal. This is poorly located and maintained accommodation that often literally puts the lives of poorer students at risk (through fires, electrocution, gang violence, and so on). The bulk of the current student population resides at this “other” kind of accommodation as they simply cannot afford the alternative.

On top of the residence costs, these students are forced to also include transport costs in their already depleted budgets as the distances are not easily walkable. Yes, certain universities do have shuttles that transport students to their respective residences, but these shuttles operate at specific times and within a certain radius. Students who do not adhere to these times or those who are not within this radius are thus not catered for even by shuttle systems that are meant to serve them.

Housing problems at public universities are not new. In 2015, Nzimande signed into effect a policy on minimum norms and standards for student housing at public universities as a means to regulate the provision of on- and off-campus student housing, thereby ensuring that students are provided with adequate, fit-for-purpose accommodation of reasonable quality, and learning and living environments that promote academic success.

The problem with this policy, however, is that it only applies to public universities and only privately owned accommodation that is accredited by public universities. Second, many public universities do not adhere to these housing standards — stories run by the East London Daily Dispatch in 2018 exposed two residences at the Walter Sisulu University (Phulo and KGB) that were in ruins and neither fit nor safe enough for anyone to reside in them.

Anecdotal stories from various other residences at universities across the country tell a similar tale of maintenance issues that are left unattended for extended periods of time. There has been a peak in student protests over accommodation at various universities despite the minimum norms and standards policy already being in place.

In 2016, students at the University of Cape Town erected a shack on campus as a means to draw attention to the housing crisis at the university. In 2018 at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, students used the hashtag “#Kwazekwanzima” to highlight a similar crisis. The same was done by Wits University students in 2019, who engaged in a hunger strike to raise awareness over housing challenges.

Yet in 2020, university students across the country are still involved in protests over accommodation. This indicates that the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), with public universities, still have not managed to deal with this problem effectively. Thus one wonders how universities can hold private accommodation providers accountable for appalling living conditions when they themselves cannot maintain the standards for accommodation at public universities as set out by the DHET.

Accommodation patterns at institutions of higher learning mirror the apartheid city model; however in this instance capital has replaced race as the tool of discrimination. The university as a point of interest becomes the centre, around it the closest accommodation premises are reserved for those who can pay — thus the rich stay close and the further one moves away from a university the cheaper the accommodation gets.

Students who stay further away from the university campus have the extra burden of having to contend with costs of transportation to and from the campus, condemning them to the confines of poverty. Counter-arguments to the elitism of close-to-campus student accommodation have been that even poor students with funding from bursaries, and to some degree from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), can afford to stay at some of the premises close to campus.

A possible solution to the student accommodation affordability challenge is for universities, with the help of DHET, to establish a uniform off-campus residence management system. This system will govern the management of all accredited residences housing public university students. The management of these residences should include things like collection of fees, cleaning of premises, security, transport to and from university and also the creation and maintaining of a conducive learning environment through designated study areas and functioning internet connections.

Universities would then, through this system, set benchmark rental prices in line with maximum NSFAS-recognised accommodation pricing structures. Thus, public universities can effectively manage the services that are provided at these residences, providing the management services it offers on-campus students to residents of these off-campus residences. The universities would then be responsible for facilitating the payment of rental fees adding it to the tuition of the students in the same way it is done on campus. The property owners would receive the total amount they ought to receive from the university in question.

These initiatives do not require the addition of new money into the fray, but rather the effective management of the system. The incentive afforded to property owners for abiding by this system would be that property owners no longer have to face the burden of advertising, recruiting, security and cleaning as the universities would do that for them. Only maintenance of the property remains the responsibility of the landlord and would be covered from rental income they receive.

Furthermore, municipalities could offer rates rebates to compliant landlords. The advantage for universities would be that the university could ensure that they accommodate their students at rental rates that are the same as those paid on campus. To ensure full co-operation, punitive measures like increasing rates and service charges could also be added by the universities in conjunction with the municipality for landlords providing non-compliant student accommodation. Rogue accommodation needs to be brought into accreditation and a subsequent management system of all accredited accommodation implemented by universities.

Student housing is too serious a matter to be left in the hands of universities alone — co-operation between the DHET, local law enforcement and municipalities is of paramount importance to ensure that students are not financially exploited and can stay in premises where their safety is not compromised. Recommendations like these need to be pursued if we are to accommodate all our students in quality and affordable accommodation.



Disclaimer - The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the BEE CHAMBER

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