R147bn needed to address student housing backlog

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Cape Town - Over R147 billion invested over 15 years is needed to alleviate the massive backlog and improve conditions for student housing, revealed a report released by the Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande today.

Releasing the ministerial committee's report on the review of the provision of student housing in Parliament, Nzimande said inadequate student housing had been a contributing factor to the country's high university failure rate.

He said the student bed shortage stood at about 195 800 in 2010 and was expected to rise to 207 800 next year.

There was also a significant backlog for the maintenance of existing residences, which stood at about R4.4 billion as at September last year.

Nzimande said his department had already taken action by allocating R847 million of the over
R3.8 billion infrastructure grant to student housing - of which R743 million would go to previously disadvantaged institutions.

His department was also in discussions with the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) to set up a special fund for university accommodation.

"It is anticipated that the fund will be operational in the next three to four months and will offer preferential rates (for funding) to universities," he said.

Universities did not, however, have to wait for the fund to be set up, but could start applying immediately for student housing loans, he said.

In 2010, 535 433 students had applied to be enrolled in the country's 554 residences, but only 107 598 could be accommodated in that year because of the limited number of beds available - meaning 80% of students could not be accommodated.

Nzimande said of serious concern was that only 5.3% of first-year students were in residences.

The department would therefore be encouraging universities to place more first-years in student housing.

He said the conditions of student housing on and off campus at the country's 22 universities and 49 campuses "left much to be desired".

Added to this, a shortage of housing had resulted in overcrowding, jeopardising their studies and creating health and safety issues.

The shortage of housing had also forced students to rent accommodation, running up their costs and forcing them to spend hours commuting to and from university.

"Between 2005 and 2010, there were 39 student protests, with most of these being at previously-disadvantaged universities," said Nzimande.

The estimated shortage in 2013 will be 207 800 beds. These estimates are premised on the provision of residence accommodation for 80% of full-time students on campuses where off-campus accommodation is unsuitable and/or unavailable, especially in rural universities and for 50% of full-time students on campuses where limited off-campus accommodation is both available and suitable.

The cost per room in 2010 was about R240 000, which included fittings and furniture, a kitchenette and social space that a student accommodation is expected to have as well as water and electricity tariffs.

Some campuses had no housing suitable for disabled people.

The committee found that many students went for days with out meals, which he said explained partly why about 40% of first-year students failed during their first sitting of exams.

Only 41% had dining halls (93 in total), of which 40% are self-catering, with 19% including both self-catering and ordinary.

"Hungry students cannot be expected to fare well. I want to appeal to all vice-chancellors to ensure that students in their residences have access to funding for proper meals," he said.

To alleviate backlogs, his department would also be looking into building cheaper, yet more durable student housing to ensure that costs were kept down.

He said certain minimum standards for costs, safety, noise and access for disabled people were also needed.

In 2010, Professor Ihron Rensburg, the vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, was appointed to look into student housing and draft a report on it.

The report was presented to Nzimande in September but he said it was only released now to allow time for the department to come up with measures to address the problems.

Rensburg said his university had made a decision two years ago that at least 40% of its students should be in a residence.

He said this was informed by both Stellenbosch University research as well as a US study that suggests that spending your first year in residence significantly increases the chance of a student of attaining their degree or qualification in the specified number of years.

Rensburg said adequate student housing was crucial to South Africa's future.

"We are creating the possibility here for these men and women to become leaders; if we provide them with accommodation of this kind, what is their experience going to be and what kind of leadership we will receive?" he asked.