Student housing set to become one of biggest challenges in HE

The shortage of quality and affordable housing units to accommodate university students has become one of the major challenges facing the higher education sector in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to Adamou Labara, the International Finance Corporation’s (IFC) country manager in South Africa.

Citing the situation in South Africa as an example, Labara said the country’s tertiary education has an estimated supply gap of 511,600 beds. “But, with enrolments increasing each year, by 2025, the demand gap is set to grow to 781,000 beds,” Labara told University World News.

Labara noted that tertiary enrolment rates in most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are growing much faster than the institutions can meet the demand for on-campus student accommodation.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, estimates that, whereas Sub-Saharan Africa had 4.5 million tertiary students in 2008, the number has now almost doubled.

In this regard, most universities have had most of their students living off-campus as the construction of student hostels appears to be inadequate in most countries in the region.

For instance, in South Africa, there is only one bed for every 3.3 students at the major public universities, according to Amina El Zayat, a senior operations officer at the IFC.

Purpose-built student accommodation

Addressing a student housing investors’ workshop held in Pretoria, South Africa, earlier this year, El Zayat stressed that the supply of student accommodation has not kept up with growing on-campus enrolments.

It is against this background that IFC, a member of the World Bank that offers investment, advisory and asset-management services to private-sector development in less developed countries, had been encouraging investors in the construction industry to be engaged in the development of purpose-built student accommodation, or PBSA, for students in Africa.

Highlighting the potential and magnitude of PBSA markets beyond Sub-Saharan Africa, El Zayat noted that there are more than 53 million students in developing economies without PBSA as a choice when attending university. There is also an estimated US$60 billion of annual rental income from students in developing economies that are currently without access to PBSA.

The IFC’s estimate of investment needed to provide PBSA to students where this is not currently an option exceeds US$270 billion. “Those are profitable emerging markets that are driven by rising student enrolment rates, supply-demand gaps and favourable rental yields,” said El Zayat.

Negligible investment in PBSA

Although it is currently hard to pinpoint the actual number of students who need accommodation off-campus in Sub-Saharan Africa, what is not in doubt is that universities in Africa are not equipped to absorb the growing demand that has resulted from broader access to basic education.

So far, South Africa has the most developed PBSA market with significant investment from both private and public higher education institutional investors.

Even then, according to the National Empowerment Fund’s annual performance plan for 2023-24, South African universities have been battling to accommodate a striking portion of the student population, which has resulted in the growing demand for PBSA in the country.

But the situation is even worse in other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, where on-campus is not available for most university students and investments in PBSA are negligible.

East and West Africa

According to Shelter Afrique, the Nairobi-based pan-African finance institution that supports the development of the housing and real estate sector in Africa, many university students in Kenya and Uganda have no on-campus hostel accommodation.

The continental housing investment utility estimates universities in Kenya have a shortfall of over 350,000 bed-spaces.

Reporting the Tanzanian experience, Dr Isabella Mtani, the head of interior design at Ardhi University, says inadequate accommodation for students has remained one of the critical challenges faced by public universities in Tanzania.

“Four or more students often share rooms that were initially designed for two students and two single beds had been replaced with bunk beds for more students,” says Mtani.

A similar predicament has been reported in Ethiopia, where expansion in tertiary education had been increasing fast without a corresponding rise in provision of on-campus accommodation.

Shelter Afrique says higher education trends in West Africa are almost similar to those in East Africa, as, for instance, in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal, only about 25% of the student population enjoy on-campus hostel accommodation.

Affordability remains a concern

In this regard, ACS Capital, a finance advisory firm offering a range of services in the real estate sector in French-speaking West Africa, says that, although the PBSA asset category is still at a nascent development in Sub-Saharan Africa, it has great potential for both the students and investors.

In a briefing, ‘Student Housing Market in Africa’, ACS Capital says the demand for PBSA in Sub-Saharan Africa is growing rapidly, and has started to attract interest from investors and developers from around the world.

“Within this environment, student housing in certain regions in Sub-Saharan Africa is set to emerge as an attractive alternative investment, just as it has in developed markets such as the United Kingdom and the United States,” stated ACS Capital in their briefing.

Although expectations are high about the future development of private and institutional PBSA in Sub-Saharan Africa, based largely on rising university enrolment rates and unmet demand for accommodation, researchers are worried about the direction it will take in terms of affordability.

The issue is that, whereas the new PBSA are focused on creating high quality learning spaces, some researchers think they are not pocket-friendly to most students and their families.

Already, many students who stay in off-campus accommodation in most African countries are only able to rent rooms in informal settlements and urban slums where they are confronted with security problems, challenging social environments, poor lighting and bed facilities and have no internet facilities.

In this case, it appears that the proliferation of off-campus students in Sub-Saharan Africa is far more complicated as there are no indicators that most students in African universities, now, or in the future, will be able to afford the modern PBSA envisaged by real-estate investors.

Fanon’s wretched of the modern era?

According to Nothile Prudence Ndimande, a lecturer of Geography at the University of Zululand in South Africa, most off- campus students, especially those in rural universities in Sub-Saharan Africa, have become Frantz Fanon’s wretched of the modern era, living in dilapidated, tiny housing structures, resented by residents and pursuing dreams that are not likely to come true.

Even then, not all of the off-campus students in African universities are miserable in poverty, as there are those who can afford rent in upscale PBSA that are designed, not just to meet the basic conditions for learning, but to satisfy the renter’s luxurious comfort and well-being.

But, as for the likelihood of the PBSA’s thriving in Sub-Saharan Africa, the balance lies in the words of El Zayat, who argued that the emerging university student housing facilities in the region must compete with fragmented low-cost and low-quality alternatives, taking into account that most students’ ability to pay is capped by study loans and limited personal financial resources.