Call for ‘national consensus’ to grow student housing

South African students, universities and colleges as well as banks and investors have been urged to assist in the search for “smarter solutions” to an ongoing, chronic shortage of student accommodation.

Speaking at a national student accommodation symposium held at the University of South Africa in Pretoria last month, Higher Education and Training Minister Dr Blade Nzimande emphasised the need for a “national consensus” around a housing programme supported by both the public and private sectors.

Referring to the #FeesMustFall campaign, initiated last year aimed at scrapping tuition fees and which led to the establishment of a commission examining the feasibility of free higher education, Nzimande said: “I have been saying recently that students must tell us what must rise, not only what must fall. #FeesMustFall gave us the impetus to address the challenge of rising tuition fees in a context of falling subsidies, and we now have a national dialogue on finding a lasting solution.”

The accommodation shortage was highlighted earlier this year when University of Cape Town students affiliated to the #RhodesMustFall movement, which is dedicated to eradicating colonial symbols and transforming universities, built a shack on Residence Road on campus and cordoned off the area, calling it Shackville.

The students said they were drawing attention to the lack of accommodation and alleged racism in the allocation of student rooms, especially in favour of white international students.

A shortage of student accommodation has prevailed in South Africa for many years, during which universities saw expanding enrolments without provision made for adequate accommodation at the country’s 26 public universities and 50 technical and vocational education and training or TVET colleges.

Ministerial review

According to a ministerial review in 2011, there was a deficit of 200,000 university beds at that time and six or more applicants for 107,000 beds. Out of 583,000 students at the time, only 18% could be housed in university residences and only 5% were first-year students.

A substantial increase in the Department of Higher Education and Training or DHET budget allocation for student housing infrastructure did not significantly improve the situation.

Nzimande ascribed the shortage to inadequate budgets for student housing infrastructure, limited budgets for operating costs, and poor or deferred maintenance of residence buildings – again mainly the result of limited resources.

He said efforts to get the national Treasury to substantially increase the DHET budget allocation for student housing infrastructure or attract the private sector into public-private partnerships with universities to provide much-needed accommodation had not been entirely successful.

The review projected that by 2016 the bed shortage would reach 216,000. By 2030, an extra 400,000 beds would be needed.

Nzimande said that by 2015 the DHET had allocated R1.6 billion in grants for student housing infrastructure projects over the previous three years. The funds were supplemented by university funds of R700 million to reach R2.3 billion – all of which has provided 9,000 new beds.

New accommodation drive

The minister admitted that there had been a poor response to the call for public-private partnerships or PPPs to deal with student housing. Among all surveyed universities, only two projects that could be called PPPs had been concluded since 2012.

Nzimande said that in order to kick-start a new student housing programme, DHET has been granted R30 million by the European Union Infrastructure Investment Programme for South Africa.

In addition, the Development Bank of Southern Africa, Public Investment Corporation, Department of Public Works and the Gauteng provincial government would be supporting the drive to provide student accommodation, he said.

“We will need improved ways of procuring projects worth billions of rands. We will not tolerate corruption, collusion or maladministration tainting this programme. We are committed to working with our public and private partners to put in place the structures, governance and implementation resources to make this initiative work,” the minister said.

National consensus

Nzimande emphasised the need for a national consensus around a sustained student housing infrastructure programme, supported by both the public and private sectors.

In response, stakeholders at the symposium agreed to identify vacant land and properties in the province of Gauteng owned by the Department of Public Works and Gauteng provincial government that could be suitable for use by universities and colleges for student housing, academic and other purposes.

A process for the transfer of identified vacant land and unused properties to universities and colleges for student housing will be facilitated in line with applicable government policy and legislation.

Any new student accommodation on offer to students will be recorded and the stakeholders agreed to develop an action plan to put this intention into effect within three months.