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Tuesday Oct 30, 2012

Concerns over shortage of student accommodation

For the matriculants who choose to further their studies at university, getting an acceptance letter from the university of their choice is only half the battle won.

For the majority of the students whose homes are nowhere near the institutions, finding a place to stay is a major struggle.

According to a review report on student accommodation in South Africa's 23 universities that was released to the public in February, public universities can only accommodate 20 percent of the total number of contact students.

When the report was released, Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande gave this example to illustrate the desperate need for student accommodation: "It takes a student that resides at home in Mamelodi and travels to and from either (Wits) or the University of Johannesburg (UJ) between three to four hours a day to attend classes using public transport. The estimated [distance] between Mamelodi and Johannesburg is only 82km. It's no coincidence that many students experiencing these conditions, especially in the first year, fail to cope with the demands of academia given the time spent commuting."

Nzimande said the lack of space and adequate accommodation was more severe for firstyear students, who are the ones most in need of the facilities and the support they provide.

"Most disconcerting though is that only 5.3 percent of first year students, those arguably in the greatest need of accommodation, are in residences. This is of serious concern to us," he said.

In addition to the shortage of residences, the report found that the facilities that are there aren't well maintained.

"Many institutions have not been able to make sufficient investments in maintaining their infrastructure, and far too few students can actually be accommodated," Nzimande said.

The report revealed that in some instances up to eight students share one room. UJ vice-chancellor Ihron Rensburg, who chaired the ministerial committee that compiled the report, said the committee came across "outstanding" practices, such as in Rhodes and Stellenbosch, and "very bad" conditions.

"The one that really stood out was in KZN where a hostel for sugarcane workers was converted into a residence for students. The conditions were quite appalling. The food was moved from the main campus [to the residence] and arrived cold. The impression we had of the food was that it was rotten," Rensburg said.

The committee found that 41 percent of the campuses had dining halls, 40 percent were selfcatering and 19 percent had both options. The report reads: "Mixed views were expressed with regard to self-catering versus catered meals. Self-catering is viewed as being the cheaper and more flexible option, but many students lamented that preparing meals is time consuming."

The report further states that of the residences that do have catering facilities "many kitchens observed during site visits were poorly furnished and equipped and in some cases... had no stoves, with students expected to bring their own."

Even in places with adequate kitchens, students still prefer to cook in their rooms. The committee found that students used their desks to study and to cook and washed their dishes in bathroom sinks, which often lead to drain blockages.

Another issue the committee picked up was that many students went for long periods of time, days sometimes, without eating.

"Food and nutrition are issues in all universities. During the site visits the committee became aware of large numbers of students (both residential and nonresidential) who were hungry.

"There is a general concern among residence managers and student leaders alike that students are not eating well. Financial pressure are such that students go hungry or constantly eat poor quality or inadequately balanced diets.

"Some students don't eat for days. University managers considered this to be a particularly serious problem among first-year students and those with bursaries. Hunger and poor nutrition are believed to affect attendance, concentration during lectures and academic performance, and to lead to high drop out rates."

The report also found that there was a "severe shortage" of accommodation for students with disabilities.

"Some campuses have no residences suitable for students who require wheelchair-accessible buildings, rooms and bathroom facilities."

The committee found that no university had specific policies regarding accommodating students with disabilities.

The Department of Higher Education and Training's spokeswoman, Vuyelwa Qinga, said all universities had been allocated funding to improve their infrastructure, including student residences.

"For all new infrastructure and residences, it is a requirement that facilities must be universally accessible [also for students with disabilities]. An amount of R130.1 million was made available by the department with universities providing from their own resources R51.7m for improving infrastructure to ensure greater accessibility," she said.

Qinga said in addition to the R6 billion the department had set aside for the infrastructure and efficiency grant for universities over the 2012/13 and 2013/14 financial years, universities had also committed from their own funding a further R671m to this grant.

"This brings the total combined funding available for student accommodation to R2.3bn. This will yield at least 9 000 new beds into the system over the next three years," she said.

Pretoria News

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