New guidelines aim to expand, improve student housing

Minister of Higher Education and Training Dr Blade Nzimande has issued guidelines for student housing at public universities, aimed at expanding and improving sometimes dire accommodation through minimum standards. South Africa previously had no policies governing housing at universities.

The minister said the guidelines must be followed when planning specifications for building new student housing and refurbishing existing accommodation. Universities are expected to start implementing the new requirements in June 2016.

The guidelines, recently published in the Government Gazette, follow the 2011 Report on the Ministerial Committee for the Review of the Provision of Student Housing at South African Universities, which observed that housing for students was about more than providing beds – it was also about establishing living, learning and social communities.

Dire situation

The ministerial committee led by Professor Iron Rensburg, vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, investigated student housing and confirmed serious problems in the provision of accommodation both on and off campuses.

There have been reports of students living in squalor, starving, squatting or getting raped, robbed or even killed due to shortages of accommodation, and of sub-standard and insecure housing.

On many occasions students have taken to the streets to press home their message.

According to the Department of Higher Education and Training, between 2005 and 2010 universities reported 39 incidents of student housing-related protests, with most of the protests at ‘historically black’ institutions, which are generally less well resourced.

The ministerial report, compiled after visiting 22 universities and 44 campuses, described widely varying standards for student housing across public universities. Accommodation at the majority of universities was found to be sub-standard; some provided inadequate food and nutrition for most students living in residences.

The lack of supply of student housing, or sub-standard accommodation, was one of the primary causes for poor performance and high dropout rates at some universities.

Students with disabilities were severely affected, as most universities had no suitable residences for students requiring wheelchair-friendly buildings, rooms and bathrooms.

Responding to need

According the Department of Higher Education and Training, or DHET, the new standards must be applied by all public universities and university-accredited student housing providers.

Application of the standards will ensure that students have adequate, fit-for-purpose accommodation of reasonable quality, and enjoy learning and living environments that promote academic success, the department said.

It said student housing must provide for universal access for students with disabilities, and all reasonable measures must be taken to ensure that disability is incorporated into the design of new residences.

The policy binds all student housing providers to laws that relate to the housing of students, such as the National Building Regulations and Occupational Health and Safety Act.

The guidelines say student accommodation must preferably be situated within the campus security perimeter, to enable students to make full use of the academic, social, cultural and sporting programmes offered by the university without restriction.

Where on-campus accommodation is unavailable, student housing must be within a 20 kilometres radius of the campus.

Affordable and secure transport running at regular intervals from early morning to late night must be provided for housing further than five kilometres from the campus, and such sites should be carefully selected with the safety and well-being of students in mind.

The DHET said it would inspect new buildings and existing refurbished buildings after completion to satisfy itself that the buildings were fit-for-purpose, whether it had funded them or not.

All universities were called on to develop strategies to increase the percentage of residence places available for first-year students to at least 30% of total residence capacity within 10 years. The ministerial study found that only 5.3% of new students were getting housing.

The council of each public university is required to submit approved plans and strategies for student housing to the DHET by June 2016.

What universities say

Anna-Retha Bouwer, senior media relations officer at the University of Pretoria, said it was currently considering the implications of the policy guidelines.

To increase its accommodation offering, the university had entered into a three-year private lease and was pursuing accreditation agreements with private accommodation providers.

Bouwer said the University of Pretoria had already benefitted from additional state funding for new residences on the Prinshof and Onderstepoort campuses, which were aimed at tackling housing needs for increased student intakes in the school of medicine and the faculty of veterinary science. The residences have been in operation since the start of 2015.

“Despite efforts to increase capacity, the demand for student housing far outstrips the supply,” she told University World News.

Pat Lucas, spokesperson for the University of Cape Town, said the guidelines and their implications were under consideration.

“We believe that student housing built by the University of Cape Town in the past decade meets and in some cases even exceeds the new standards,” she said.

Lucas also said demand for housing was outstripping supply and the university was looking at expansion strategies, including off-campus student accommodation. She said the institution might consider a mixed investment approach to address the housing need.

She added that many of the university’s residences, and especially those built since 2000, have accessible rooms and ablution facilities for students with mobility disabilities.