Many students living in ‘appalling’ conditions – Report

A significant portion of South African students are living in “appalling” conditions, which is jeopardising their academic endeavours and creating health and safety risks. Some are also starving, according to a report on student housing released recently by the Department of Higher Education and Training.

The student housing review, commissioned in 2010 by Minister of Higher Education and Training Dr Blade Nzimande, estimates that South African universities will need R147.37 billion (US$19.3 billion), at an average cost of R240,000 per new student bed including facilities, over the next 15 years to correct a national backlog in student accommodation.

The backlog is currently sitting at just over 195,000 beds and is expected to grow to around 207,000 in 2013. In addition, R4.4 billion is needed simply to maintain, refurbish and modernise existing residences.

The detailed report – based on responses to questionnaires sent to 22 universities, site visits to 49 campuses, and visits to samples of off-campus private facilities – notes that 39 cases of student protest over the past five years have been linked to dissatisfaction with student housing facilities and maintenance at the country’s institutions.

In his introduction to the report, review committee chairman Professor Ihron Rensburg, who is also vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, said research had shown that spending one’s first year at university in a well-managed residence improved a student’s chances of completing their degree on time.

Rensburg said that while internationally about 50% of students lived at home or with relatives during their studies, South Africa’s high levels of poverty and the unsuitability of the home environment for academic endeavour meant that in some contexts suitable accommodation needed to be provided for up to 100% of students.

The review revealed that the number of beds available at residential universities in 2010 totalled only 107,598, or 20% of the total contact student enrolment in the residential university system, which in 2010 was 535,433 and expected to grow at a rate of over 2%.

While the national racial demographic profile of students provided with accommodation in universities was close to that of the national demographic profile of the country, Nzimande said it was “disconcerting” that only 5.3% of first-year students – arguably those most in need of accommodation – were in residences.

In 2010, 71% of students in residence received some form of financial assistance and the average residence fee without food was R13,283 while the average residence fee with food was R30,924.

At a media briefing, Nzimande said release of the review report, completed in September last year, was delayed to allow his ministry to come up with a plan of action to begin to address the range of challenges highlighted by the 272-page document.

Part of this plan is the allocation of a R3.8 billion infrastructure and efficiency grant for universities over the next two financial years. Out of this, R847 million has been earmarked just for student housing, with a major chunk – R743 million – going to historically disadvantaged institutions.

He said discussions were also under way with the Public Investment Corporation about setting up a special fund for university accommodation, anticipated to be operational in the next three to four months, which would offer preferential rates to universities.

The department would also hold a workshop with all universities to work through the report’s recommendations and take forward the guidelines on minimum standards for student accommodation, he said.

Among the review’s recommendations is the development by each university of a rigorously implemented admissions policy that would pay particular attention to:
  • • First-year students.
  • • Minimum standards for student housing in public and private facilities alike.
  • • Fostering well-managed public-private partnerships around student housing.
  • • An improvement in the training and compensation of residence staff and a lowering of student-to-staff ratios.
  • • Separation of residence budgets from university budgets.
  • • An increase in the range of National Student Financial Aid Scheme funding for residence accommodation.

    The report notes that while most of the infrastructure observed during site visits was “in an average condition”, almost a quarter of all residential infrastructure was considered by the universities themselves to be “unsatisfactory or poor”.

    In one case, a building at the University of Limpopo’s Turfloop campus housing 50 students had only one functioning toilet. Photographs taken at Turfloop and other institutions during the review committee’s site visits attest to some of the infrastructural decay.

    The report states further that the state of on-campus residence infrastructure and facilities at a number of universities is “so inadequate that even the poorest students are being forced to find private off-campus accommodation, or else desperately seek a space in a room already occupied by several other students".

    However, as the review committee found, in certain cases private off-campus premises leased by universities were worse. “Although only a few of these off-campus sites, specifically some near the University of Venda in Thohoyandou, were visited, they can only be described as appalling,” notes the report.

    The report expressed concern that while private accommodation facilities provided housing for close to 10% of contact student enrolment, it was largely unregulated, allowing for exploitation of students and exposure of students to various types and levels of risk.

    Very few of the buildings visited – leased by the universities of KwaZulu-Natal, Venda, Walter Sisulu, the Western Cape and Zululand, and the Cape Peninsula, Durban and Mangosothu universities of technology – were “remotely fit-for-purpose”, with cases of overcrowding at other leased buildings leading to significant safety, hygiene and security risks.

    Poor nutrition and student hunger features fairly prominently in the report and were issues at all universities, with the poor distribution of NSFAS funds for student accommodation at some universities causing hardship for students.

    At Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s Wellington campus, it was reported that a warden distributed two-minute noodle packs at her own expense to students whose NSFAS funding for food had not been received two months into the academic year.

    While no student interviewed during the site visits admitted to being hungry (the report suggests students are reluctant to admit to being impoverished), the committee found general concern among residence managers and student leaders about nutrition levels, with campus health staff at the University of Venda, for example, indicating that students regularly faint as a result of inadequate nourishment.

    At Mangosuthu University of Technology, the report notes that the prevalence of students begging for food had reached such proportions that a Students Against Hunger society had been established under the patronage of the vice-chancellor, who has a box outside his office for the collection of food donations.

    Other universities had started similar campaigns.