South Africa, May 16 -- South African universities must do more to ensure academic success
Four students share the one side of a double room at University of Venda. PHOTO: Supplied
Exhausted and hungry, a young university student drags himself into his tiny room. He greets his roommate stiffly but cannot summon a hello to the other squatters living in the room. That energy must be saved for studying.
A desk, a bed and something to eat may be considered the bare minimum for a successful university career, however a recent report from the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) has revealed that for many South African students this is a dream far out of reach.
Only 30% of all university students who apply for accommodation receive it, and even then, what they are met with is too often squalid conditions, poor infrastructure and overcrowding.
- Download full report here -
Kevin Mgwali is one such student. “The living conditions here are so bad,” he said of the University of Fort Hare. “I have failed some of my tests because there were no study lamps and the noise is so bad.”
A University of Limpopo a student who refused to be named for fear of retribution spoke of squatting impinging on his academic career.
“My roommate would sublet out parts of the room giving me no space to study,” said the second year economics student. “The squatters would just draw a line and say this is your side, I couldn’t study like that.”
On examining accommodation at the University of Limpopo, the DHET report said that even the university officials would not enter the rooms. “The stench of blocked drains and malfunctioning sewerage systems was indescribable.”
It is no surprise then when this student did not even qualify to write his exams in 2011.
Tip of the iceberg
The link between students living conditions and their academic success is undeniable. Data showed that those universities with increased overcrowding, subletting, poor infrastructure or hunger also showed lower pass rates and higher drop out rates.
“It is an indictment on all who live in this country that some of the greatest talents of the next generation, and many of its future leaders, are being suffered to live and learn under such appalling conditions,” stated the report.
However substandard housing is nothing compared to the poor students who cannot afford to eat.
Health officials at the University of Venda reported that fainting from malnutrition is a serious problem while begging is reported to be out of control at Mangosuthu University.
The second year University of Limpopo student explains how his residence did not provide food and that his room was too small to cook in. Mgwali admits to only having R450 a month to spend on food and a small kitchen to share between 60 students at the University of Fort Hare.
The DHET report says, “It is not only that the country’s potential is being squandered; it is literally being starved.”
One may ask then, how it is possible for students to fund their university careers but not a plate of food? The answer lies in the mismanagement of financial aid money given to the universities and then distributed to students.
“The maldistribution of NSFAS (National Student Financial Aid Scheme) funding for student accommodation at a number of universities is the direct cause of much suffering and hardship to students,” explained the report.
Data shows that students benefiting from financial aid increased by 17.1% from 2008 to 2010, however this does not imply that financial aid has increased in a similar vein but could suggest that aid is being spread too thin.
For instance Mgwali is able to pay for his university fees out of his financial aid money, yet the R450 he is given for food each month does not touch sides.
Given South Africa’s high levels of poverty means that the international level that 50% of students are accommodated at home by their parents, does not apply here. Instead, “suitable student accommodation needs to be provided for up to 100% of students in some contexts”, the report said.
A solution in mind
The situation seems dire, another 200 000 beds would be needed immediately in order to just accommodate the current students’ needs.
Department of Higher Education and Training Minister, Mr Blade Nzimande admits in the report, “this is primarily the responsibility of the state and, where feasible, the universities themselves.”
Fortunately following the release of the report in March, suggestions have been put into action. In his speech to parliament in April, Nzimande announced an injection of R850 million to be spent on university residential refurbishment over the next two years.
Nzimande’s hope for South Africa’s universities cannot be synthesized better than in the words of the University of Limpopo student:
“My only hope is to graduate.”
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Department of Higher Education and Training
Full DHET report on university accommodation (PDF)
National Student Financial Aid Scheme of South Africa