Free Education – The Next Crisis is Student Accommodation

Pedro Mzileni

The free education announcement by government will increase the enrolment numbers across all universities and technical colleges of South Africa. Without a doubt, the government will reach its Vision 2030 target of having 1.5 million students enrolled across all institutions of higher learning in the country. In addition, government has compelled itself to cover all costs associated with fees and subsidies to cater for the increased numbers. President Jacob Zuma set a minimum target of 1% of the GDP going towards funding higher education.

With young people having demonstrated that they possess enough stamina to take to the streets and hold the system on a standstill in times of disagreement, that figure will surely increase up to 3% GDP over the next few years especially when they apply social pressure once more. At the centre of the ever-increasing number of student’s enrolments in universities post-1994, particularly the Black students from poor families, is the perception that apartheid minority rule led to the humiliating proletarianization of the South African Black family and, therefore, a university qualification is an exit footpath from that junkyard into a new trajectory of success characterized by employment, comfort, and prestige.

This social dynamic gives the demand for free higher education legitimacy in the hearts and minds of the overwhelming majority of South Africans. In addition, the government led by the liberation movement elected on the ticket of creating a socio-economically free society for the oppressed black majority, sees political value in investing in free education. In our context, most black people move from the poverty line into the middle-class status through accessing higher education, obtaining a qualification, and securing employment thereof.

It is this class of black people who carry the weight of millions of poor families in this country. As a result, a university appears in the eyes of the ordinary South African, young and old, as a factory that absorbs today’s poor people to produce tomorrow’s middle-class. Therefore, with the wealth demographics of our country remaining stubbornly unchanged since apartheid, the scuffle to access a university in our democracy will continue being a boiling point in the discourse of our political economy for decades to come.

Mass access to universities driven by the progressive funding policies of the democratic government brings into the fold another crisis – infrastructure. It is worth remembering that out of the 26 universities we have in the country, only two universities were built by this government. The illegitimate government of the past built the rest to enrol the white minority. I cannot say much about technical and vocational training colleges in South Africa because the social attitude of our society, the education system at high school level and the material interests of our economic system do not position such institutions as worthy of investment. Honestly, everybody still has their eyes glued on universities only.

On the case of infrastructure, the University of Port Elizabeth had 3500 students enrolled in 1985 and 3000 of them were staying in its on-campus residences. In 2017, it is now called the Nelson Mandela University with 28 000 students enrolled and 4000 of them reside on-campus. The university cannot accurately account as to where exactly the other 22 000 students reside in the city. In other words, the increased enrolment numbers into universities post-1994 were not matched with the same speed in expanding their existing infrastructure.

The new students will need to make use of computer labs, libraries, lecture halls, dining halls, residences, and teaching personnel. The adequate availability of such infrastructure is crucial to the teaching, research, and learning process of a university. For the university to continue being a legitimate institution in society, it must be able to cultivate its entire student body to the existing infrastructure in order to rollout student retention and student success. It is in that value chain where students gain the worth of being in university so that when they complete their qualifications, they go on to be useful citizens who contribute to the realization of social justice. That is the central mandate society gives to universities as enshrined in the National Development Plan.

Residences are a space where students live, learn, and have a sense of community with others. Due to the influx of enrolments, universities have been forced to incorporate the option of off-campus accommodation to their systems. Departments of Student Affairs across the higher education sector are on a constant struggle to avail an equal distribution and quality of resources between on-campus and off-campus residences in order to give students a fulfilling living and learning experience. However, this proves to be a difficult task to execute.

Whilst on-campus residences have all the necessary resources and are highly credited for snowballing the academic performance of students, off-campus residences are privately owned and are known for student exploitation, lack of safety and poor facilities. Students accommodated in off-campus residences find life difficult and they get exposed to many risks that elevate their likelihood of dropping out of university. Furthermore, most off-campus residences are far from the university campus and this exposes poor students specifically to lack of transport, vulnerability in the evening and detachment from campus life. All these challenges threaten student retention and student success.

Government, universities, business and student leaders must welcome the announcement of free education but with one eye focusing on the long-term effects the decision will have on infrastructure. The noble cause of free education would be futile when the infrastructure available is unable to cushion the students who need it the most to succeed. There must be an accelerated effort from all university stakeholders to be comprehensively proactive on the looming crisis of infrastructure backlog to make sure that those whom free education has been created to benefit do not go on to become casualties of a dream deferred.

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