Provision of Student Housing at South African Universities: Briefing by the Department of Higher Education and Training

NCOP Education and Technology, Sports, Arts and Culture

05 September 2012
Chairperson: M Makgate (ANC, North West)
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Meeting Summary

The Department of Higher Education and Training briefed the Committee on the Report and Recommendations of the Ministerial Committee for the Review of Student Housing at South African Universities. Minister of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande, had commissioned the research due to the huge overcrowding and the condition of student accommodation witnessed by him while visiting universities. The policy decision taken years ago to outsource catering, cleaning and building maintenance services, for example, at universities needed to be reconsidered as it was clearly not working.  Service providers charged inflated prices and delivery of services did not take place as they should.  A further concern was that funding from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) was not forthcoming when it should be. The delays, which could be attributed either to maladministration on the part of NSFAS or the university concerned, in the end was detrimental to students. After the NSFAS Review a new centric model for 2014 had emerged. NSFAS would from 2014 do disbursements themselves. At present NSFAS sent funds to institutions that made disbursements for accommodation, food etc. NSFAS would henceforth have control of disbursements.

An analysis of the research findings had shown that residence fees were kept low in order to provide greater access but it meant that there was less revenue to cover costs.  Of students housed in residences, 71% received some form of financial aid.  Residence staff-to-student ratios varied between 1:19 and 1: 535, with staff remuneration and training varying just as widely.  At one institution, the ratio was as high as 1:1500, which was considered ridiculous.  Based on university estimates, the national maintenance and refurbishment backlog sat at R2.5bn. It was felt that the actual figure was much higher. The backlog in beds in 2010 was approximately 200 000, the cost of which was R109bn over 15 years.
Based on the findings of the research, the DHET had agreed that norms and standards for student accommodation needed to be set. Universities would have to see to it that service providers fulfilled these norms and standards. An NSFAS student could therefore be housed only in accredited accommodations.

During discussion, Members expressed concern that a large number of students were reported to be going hungry, but were not willing to admit this was the case. The need to avoid sitting university residences in areas where drug abuse and prostitution was rife was also raised.

Meeting report

Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET)
The Department of Higher Education and Training briefed the Committee on the Report and Recommendations of the Ministerial Committee for the Review of Student Housing at South African Universities. The delegation comprised of Mr Gwebs Qondo, Director General, Mr Iain L’Ange, Executive Director, Mr Shai Makgoba, Chief Director: University Financial Planning, Ms Brenda Swart, Director: Financial Planning, Ms Diane Parker, Acting Deputy Director General: University Education, and Mr Feizal Toefy Chief Director: Performance, Monitoring and Evaluation.

Mr Qondo stated that it needed to be remembered that policy decisions taken in the past impacted upon the future. The socio-economic background of students from disadvantaged areas meant that they lacked accommodation and mobility. They were dependant upon government to support them through tertiary education institutions. Students needed to be in an environment which was conducive to quality learning. In many instances, student accommodation facilities were inadequate, were not maintained and were in a  bad condition. Services like meals were often outsourced which had their own set of problems. There were broad contextual challenges within the system.  

Mr Makgoba said that Minister Nzimande had appointed a Ministerial Committee to investigate student accommodation when, on his visits to universities, he had seen serious challenges in the provision of both on and off-campus accommodation. Lack of adequate and affordable student housing forced students to rent sub-standard accommodation off-campus. The purpose of the report was to establish the scale of the student accommodation challenges and to offer a well motivated and justifiable differentiated framework for redressing the student accommodation quandary. In addition, the report would provide government with a medium to long-term financing framework within a 15-year timeframe in order to intervene, as well as to provide minimum norms and standards for student accommodation, whether on or off-campus.

Mr L’Ange reported on the research itself.  A comprehensive questionnaire had been constructed and distributed to the vice-chancellors of 22 contact universities. Site visits to 49 campuses had also been done, looking at on and off-campus accommodation.  Key stakeholders had been interviewed. During the process it had become apparent that there was a lack of research on the issue within South Africa. The reality was that there was a shortage of student accommodation worldwide.  In SA, race and gender demographics showed that black females were the majority in student residences.  From a geographic point of view, most students were from KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape and from the Southern African Development Countries (SADC).  As a proportion of total students in 2008-2010, first year students made up only five percent of students in student residences.
He illustrated his presentation with photos taken at various campus residences. Some campus residences were well maintained, whereas others were not. The sizes and conditions of rooms also varied. Overcrowding in rooms and squatting was a problem. Even off-campus accommodation was ghastly, as was portrayed in photos taken at off-campus accommodations at the University of Venda.
Site visits had highlighted the fact that many students were starving and at the University of Venda, students had fainted. No student interviewed wished to admit that they were hungry. How were students expected to perform while hungry?  Mr L’Ange was of the view that institutions should at least provide one meal a day to students.  The problem was that a policy decision had been taken years ago that institutions should focus on their core business and outsource services. 

An analysis of findings showed that residence fees were kept low in order to provide greater access but it meant that there was less revenue to cover costs. The National Student Financial Aid Scheme was also mal-administered at institutions, which meant that students were suffering.  Of students housed in residences, 71% received some form of financial aid.  Residence staff-to-student ratios varied between 1:19 and 1: 535, with staff remuneration and training varying just as widely.  At one institution, the ratio was as high as 1:1500, which was considered ridiculous.  Based on university estimates, the national maintenance and refurbishment backlog sat at R2.5bn. It was felt that the actual figure was much higher. The backlog in beds in 2010 was approximately 200 000, the cost of which was R109bn over 15 years.

Mr L’Ange emphasised that minimum standards of accommodation needed to be gazetted, as the issue of student accommodation was at present unregulated. It was also felt that the private sector should come on board. The Committee was provided with statistics regarding registered students, the beds available, beds needed and also the related costs of beds.

He provided a comprehensive list of recommendations that had emanated from the findings. For example there should be residence admission and allocations policies, minimum standards for student housing and accommodation should be set, public-private partnerships should be encouraged to provide private student housing and accommodation given the shortage in student accommodation and all universities should establish a board, council or similar body which represented all residences and oversaw residence life. 

Mr Makgoba presented the Department of Higher Education and Training’s response to the Report.
The DHET had engaged with the Public Investment Corporation and the Development Bank of Southern Africa to offer preferential rates and viable options to universities. The DHET had hosted a workshop with all universities on 17 August 2012, and recommendations had been presented and different options around financing explored. The intention was to gazette the minimum norms and standards for the sector. A departmental project management unit would be established. Universities would be compelled to make provision for maintenance on an ongoing basis. There would be systematic mapping of the system.

Ms R Rasmeni (ANC, North West) said that cohabitation by students was unsafe and risky, especially for girls.  Food outlets at universities were expensive and sold unhealthy food.  Norms and standards needed to be developed. When did the DHET intend to draft legislation regarding the issue of student housing and the services that went with it?

Mr Qondo responded that legislating and regulating by way of norms and standards went hand in hand. However with the issue before the Committee, the best route would be to set norms and standards.  It was more appropriate for Parliament to deal with the issue -- the DHET would do its part on instruction from Parliament. He noted that when accommodation was rented from the private sector for use as student housing by universities, there should be norms and standards which private sector would have to meet.

Mr L’Ange said that in the Report, a recommendation had been made that legislation could not be enforced with an enforcement agency but rather that a university could have accredited accommodation, with norms and standards.  A National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) student could therefore only be housed in accredited accommodation.

Ms B Mncube (ANC, Gauteng) referred to the affordability of student accommodation and pointed out that there were no recommendations relating to it.  If a policy decision had been made to outsource university services like maintenance, catering, security and cleaning, perhaps it was time to reconsider it.
She asked to whom student accommodation buildings belonged to. Was it the Department of Public Works, the private sector, or was it universities themselves?  It was concerning that at the beginning of each university year, students protested to be admitted but once admitted, the university concerned sat with the problem of providing these students with accommodation. Student accommodation prices seemed to vary from province to province.  Did the DHET ever look at the issue of inflated prices of service providers?  Would the autonomy of institutions become an issue if norms and standards for accommodation were set?

Mr Qondo said that inflated prices by service providers were part of corrupt practices. There were mechanisms in place to deal with the issue.
Mr L’Ange noted that a menu for food was included in the Report. The costing had been based on Eastern Cape prices, where inflation was high. It was a theoretical model. In rural areas, service providers at universities charged R40 for a plate of food.  The model was based on in-sourced campus food.  By keeping it in-sourced, it was contributing to the Gross Domestic Product of the area.
As far as ownership of student residence buildings was concerned, the traditional model was that they were university-owned. Of the institutions researched, some buildings which had been previously used by the Department of Health as residences for staff were now used as student residences. He said the issue of autonomy of universities had not come up, as vice-chancellors realised that student accommodation was a huge problem.  No hostility had been encountered.

Mr W Faber (DA, Northern Cape) remarked that NSFAS funds were sometimes four months late. It was the students who suffered. Did the problem lie with the administration of universities or was it with NSFAS?  There was no way that the DHET could regulate privately owned accommodation facilities. On a recent visit by the Committee to Walter Sisulu University, it had been observed that some student accommodation facilities were not as bad as others. It depended upon the attitude of students as well. In some instances, buildings could be renovated whereas in other instances it was better to rebuild.
If the government was to step in, it meant that state funds would be used.  He was concerned by the fact that at Walter Sisulu University, for example, funds were being spent by smaller parts of universities. There was no centralisation of the spending. The DHET should therefore look at how funds were spent at universities.

Mr Qondo noted that it would not be the private property that would be regulated, but rather the sector. The buildings had to meet minimum norms and standards.
Mr L’Ange agreed that it was a waste to renovate useless buildings.  In as far as the spending of state funds was concerned, universities had to provide a plan for student housing and a financial plan.
Ms Swart stated that ideally funds at a university would be centrally managed, but funds were decentralised to different faculties. Problems perhaps emerged where merging of institutions had not been done properly.

Mr Makgoba said that the issue of autonomy of institutions became secondary, as public funds were being dealt with. The DHET was becoming involved in the manner in which universities procured services. The expectation from the DHET was present, because public funds were being dealt with.

Mr Qondo observed that the DHET’s interest in the procurement processes of universities was to better understand risk.

Mr S Plaaitjie (COPE, North West) asked how reliable and valid the information provided in questionnaires used for the research was.  Were samples taken from students, management or both?  Of the 23 universities surveyed, which ones needed serious attention?  He had found the use of the terms “historically advantaged” and “historically disadvantaged “awkward in this day and age. There seemed to be a thin line separating universities. When were all universities going to be on a par?  After 1994, the government had made the decision to merge institutions, the rationale of which was to get rid of the stigmas attached to certain institutions.

Mr Qondo responded that regarding the reliability of the research, the presentation explained it all. The terms “historically advantaged” and “historically disadvantaged “were not terms coined by the DHET. The terms had evolved because of SA’s history. The issue of equity cut across the entire SA society and country. Universities in rural areas were most affected by the anomaly. One of the major problems in rural areas was the lack of transport to universities, hence the use of student accommodation. Rural area universities had inadequate resources and most were in the red.  Walter Sisulu University had an overdraft of R250m. Other metropolitan universities had surpluses. The situation varied from university to university.

Mr L’ange commented on the reliability of the research done, and explained that the data had been triangulated.  In terms of which university was the worst, the figures spoke for themselves. The research showed the reality.

Ms Mncube said that the briefing had spoken about a NSFAS residence fee of R30 500 for 2011. What was the NSFAS residence fee for 2012?

Mr Makgoba answered that the average NSFAS residence fee for 2012 was R17 252. However after the NSFAS Review, a new centric model for 2014 had emerged.  NSFAS would from 2014 do disbursements itself.  At present, NSFAS sent funds to institutions. The institutions made the disbursements for accommodation, food, etc.  NSFAS would therefore have control of disbursements. 

Ms D Rantho (ANC, Eastern Cape) was concerned over whether the vice-chancellors of the 22 universities had ever done any research on the status of their student accommodations, or was the research done the first of its sort?  She asked whether owners of private student accommodations had been met on on-site visits.  Why did students interviewed not admit that they were hungry. Were they threatened?  She also asked whether the DHET was monitoring NSFAS allocations. Clarification was asked about the staff-student ratio of 1:1500 and the estimated cost of a bed being R240 000. Were there drug lords in student residences?

Mr L’Ange stated that one of the recommendations in the Report was that universities had to be wary of where their residences were located. In Durban some residences were close to drug-infested areas where prostitution was rife. He confirmed that owners of privately-owned student accommodation buildings had been met.? Many papers had been written on why students had not admitted to being hungry. There was a negative stigma attached to being poor. The issue was not about being threatened or coerced. The monitoring of NSFAS allocations was a strong recommendation in the Report. The figures for staff-student ratios were based on responses received. One of the staff participants had said that she was responsible for seeing to 1500 students.  The estimated cost of a student bed in the Eastern Cape was included in the model, and the figure was the national average for 2010.
Ms Swart reacted that perhaps the R250 000 figure for a bed might seem steep but it included a kitchenette, lounge etc.

The Chairperson pointed out that in Botswana, the government allocated student accommodation. The state footed the bill. Had the DHET considered the option?
Mr L’Ange said that Botswana even paid for education at school.

Mr Makgoba said that students from SADC studied at the University of Pretoria.

The meeting was adjourned.


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