Slow start for government’s ambitious student housing project

Ambitious moves towards creating a vibrant student housing infrastructure with 300,000 beds at South Africa’s 26 public universities and 50 Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges by 2030 have had an inauspicious start.

By 1 March 2023, according to the South African government’s Department of Public Works and Infrastructure, 9,721 student-bed dwellings had been completed. Another 5,840 are currently in the construction phase, while 27,989 bed-dwellings are in the planning phase.

Plans for the Student Housing Infrastructure Programme (SHIP) were unveiled by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) in 2020. Its goal was to provide 300,000 beds at public tertiary institutions on about 300 campuses in nine provinces by 2030 as part of a massive infrastructure development upgrade, estimated at between ZAR80 billion (about US$4.5 billion) and ZAR100 billion (about US$5.6 billion).

The project, which kicked off slowly with a funding mix from both public and private sectors – the government, public institutions, developers, development finance institutions, and the private sector – wants to ensure student financial aid provided by the state is used to develop affordable, sustainable student housing at universities and colleges.

What about private accommodation?

Underpinned by the findings of a 2010 study, which found insufficient private accredited student accommodation available near all public tertiary campuses, the University Student Housing Survey revealed that there is a 287,507 total bed capacity, and 184,973 are occupied by students whose housing allowances are funded by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). NSFAS is the government’s bursary scheme for financially needy students.

Students living in private accommodation receive a R6,000 NSFAS living allowance, R3,045 personal care allowance, and an accommodation allowance valued at R45,000 a year. Students who live within 10km of their college receive a R6,000 living allowance, R3,045 personal care allowance, and R7,718 travel allowance.

According to a ministerial review of student housing completed in 2012, only 18% of students were housed at universities at the time and just 5% of first-year students stayed in residences. The review found that state student financial aid was funding slum-like conditions in private accommodation.

Based on the recommendations in the review, funding was increased, and funds were allocated for maintenance backlogs, with a call for Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) to tackle student housing and efforts to regulate private accommodation.

In September 2015, the DHET published the Policy on the Minimum Norms and Standards for Student Housing at Public Universities in response to the review’s findings. The policy made universities responsible for accrediting private, off-campus accommodation and had until the end of 2018 to complete the accreditation process.

NSFAS-funded students may only be accommodated in housing that meets the minimum norms and standards.

In July 2016, DHET hosted a symposium, ‘Student Housing Matters’ to launch the Student Housing Infrastructure Programme (SHIP).

But research at the time showed that the private sector had not taken up the invitation to partner with universities in PPPs. Instead, private investment in off-campus student accommodation had more than doubled, mainly in Gauteng around the universities of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg and Pretoria as well as Tshwane University of Technology.

While universities with university residences manage the allocation of student housing according to their policies, universities were instructed by the DHET to ensure that first-year students and NSFAS-qualifying students were placed in university-managed residences.

Protecting students who live off-campus

For off-campus accommodation (students living at home, with relatives or friends or making their own arrangements), students receive a living and transport allowance of R2,250 a month, paid via universities.

However, making it incumbent on all institutions to register and verify private accommodation was part of efforts to protect students from fraud, exploitation and over-pricing to ensure that private accommodation allowances are effectively used.

DHET, with institutions and NSFAS, have been developing a complete accreditation system for private student accommodation. A national forum is expected to support this effort.

However, until this becomes a reality, institutions will continue to work according to their policies for accreditation. Students continue to access private single-use accommodation based on a lease agreement, but institutions will add a second layer of verification.

SHIP target

The SHIP 300,000 target is to provide 200,000 beds at universities and 100,000 beds at TVET colleges. This goal means that the number of beds offered each year must increase from the present average of 4,000 to 30,000 a year.

The DHET contributes about ZAR1 billion (about US$56 million) a year to student housing at universities. At least ZAR7 billion a year is required to achieve the 30,000 beds annual target. About ZAR80 billion is needed for some 150 projects in the programme.

The primary sources of funding for student housing development include DHET, the government’s Budget Facility for Infrastructure (BFI) grant funding, the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) loans, Infrastructure Investment Programme for South Africa (IIPSA) grants, developers and financial institutions.

Currently, the National Treasury supports SHIP through the BFI, which has provided ZAR638 million for six projects. The Development Bank of Southern Africa has put up project finance of ZAR6 billion, in addition to extensive project preparation and SHIP project management support. As part of the Infrastructure Investment Programme for South Africa (IIPSA), R330 million has been set aside for funding for feasibility studies, capital grants and interest rate subsidies.

Building progress

The first phase has seen completed projects at several institutions, including the North-West University, where the construction of 1,728-bed dwellings was completed by January 2023; the completion of 2,720-bed homes at the University of Western Cape was conducted by the end of January 2023, construction of a 1,437-bed residence at Fort Hare University completed by March 2023; and the construction of a 2,000-bed residence at Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University is progressing well and expected to be completed in October 2023.

With 2,000 new beds added to its accommodation offering, construction at Nelson Mandela University is also close to completion. Planning for a 3,000-bed residence at the University of Zululand is under way. However, a 3,500-bed residence at the University of Limpopo has not received approval from the council.

Shirona Patel, the head of communications at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), told University World News that the university accommodates about 6,436 students in its residences and accredits several other residences in and around Wits campuses in Braamfontein and Parktown, Johannesburg.

She added that, while there is currently no shortage of accommodation, there is a shortage of quality, affordable housing and that the recent cap on capacity imposed by NSFAS remains a problem, as the NSFAS provision is far less than the cost of accommodation in urban areas.

Patel said student accommodation at Wits offers more than just housing – it includes building a student community involved in extracurricular activities, academic enrichment and participation in arts, culture and sports – including wraparound support to ensure the holistic development of students and support throughout their student journey.

“We believe in learning both within and beyond the classroom and building active social citizens and networks through the Office for Residence Life.”

Campus accommodation and student life

Rikus Delport, the director of institutional advancement at the University of Pretoria, said the university has 29 residences, with a capacity of 8,191 beds for both undergraduate and postgraduate students, on five campuses.

The university also offers accommodation to postdoctoral fellows and researchers that are tailor-made for their needs. This year, the university opened its doors to a newly purchased residence with 148 beds, Varsity Lodge.

Delport said funding is a huge challenge for the development of additional beds. Still, plans are being put together to increase the existing number of beds through internal space maximisation in the existing buildings.

The accreditation of privately owned buildings has served as a contingency for the surplus demand for student accommodation, and UP has accredited 14,000 beds in 2023.

“However, collaborating with the private student housing market [on aspects such as accreditation] is, to some extent, mitigating the overwhelming demand. The cap placed on accommodation by NSFAS is the biggest challenge in terms of the sustainability of student housing in general,” Delport added.

Alan Khan, the senior director of corporate affairs at the Durban University of Technology (DUT), said the university has three types of student accommodation. These include DUT-owned residences, which can accommodate mostly first-time entry students.

Outsourced or leased homes are acquired through a tender process to accommodate returning students. The majority of students are housed in leased residences. Lastly, it has accredited private accommodation, which is used when all available bed spaces are exhausted in DUT-owned and leased residences. Students are then accommodated in accredited private housing. DUT facilitates the accreditation process.

Currently, DUT has a total of 20,970 students staying in residences in the cities of Pietermaritzburg and Durban in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province.

Khan said that, given the increasing demand for student accommodation, DUT has decided on an earlier start to the process that will find and evaluate suitable student accommodation and allow further engagements with successful bidders to ensure compliance and readiness.

“We have commenced with sourcing accreditation of private accommodation to ensure that, when available bed spaces are exhausted, students are provided with suitable alternative accommodation. We are conducting ongoing residence inspections to ensure compliance and engagements with landlords over formal workshops to address challenges and expectations.”

Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology Dr Blade Nzimande has previously told parliament he plans on developing a Comprehensive Student Accommodation Strategy to cover all aspects of student accommodation.

This includes the capacity to monitor and evaluate. Institutional autonomy has a level of accountability; institutions cannot bask in institutional autonomy and expect not to be held accountable by the government when they receive government funding.

What about NSFAS?

Addressing media on the student accommodation issue in Pretoria recently, the chairperson of the NSFAS board, Ernest Khosa, said the board conducted site visits to universities and TVET colleges across the country to assess the state of student accommodation for NSFAS-funded students.

He said the following key challenges were identified: insufficient beds to accommodate students, the state of some of the facilities is not conducive for student accommodation and learning, the cost structure for housing not adequately regulated, and the accreditation process is fraught with inconsistencies; susceptible to fraud and corruption.

“It was then necessary for NSFAS to streamline student accommodation and optimise the process of providing housing for students in a way that is efficient, cost-effective, and conducive to a positive living experience,” Khosa said.

He added that NSFAS built an online student accommodation portal wherein all accommodation providers who wish to provide accommodation to NSFAS beneficiaries should register their properties, including institutions.

NSFAS also then appointed 38 accreditors to accredit and grade the loaded properties. Once properties have been cleared and deemed fit for student living, the portal opens for students to apply for accommodation near them.

To date, 41,245 beds have been registered, 24,784 across the country have already been accredited, and NSFAS has begun piloting the new system with the selected TVET colleges.

He added that NSFAS requested institutions negatively affected by the newly introduced R45 000 accommodation cap to make their submissions and negotiations with private accommodation providers to adjust their rental rates to accommodate the cap.

A task team led by the department is reviewing the R45 000 cap. In addition, NSFAS has embarked on a new study which will feed into recommendations for the 2024 academic year.