Earlier this month, the University of Cape Town (UCT), along with Rhodes University, co-hosted the Association of College and University Housing Officers International – South African Chapter’s (ACUHO-I SAC) annual conference.
This year’s theme, “Focus on the future of student housing in South Africa and beyond”, provided a framework in which to interrogate challenges and unpack opportunities for improving this crucial sub-sector of higher education in the country.
Taking place at the President Hotel in Bantry Bay, Cape Town, the three-day conference brought with it a buzz of excitement and energy as delegates revelled in the opportunity to connect in person after almost two years of COVID-19-related lockdowns.
The palpable atmosphere of possibility and positivity also provided fertile soil for important discussions around student well-being and mental health, safety and security, infrastructure, funding and more.
As a co-host of the event, UCT played a central role in coordinating proceedings, as well as sharing some invaluable food for thought. Acting Deputy Vice Chancellor for Transformation Emeritus Professor Martin Hall delivered the welcome address on the second day of the conference, while Vice Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng concluded proceedings with the keynote address at Friday’s gala dinner.
“These times are calling us to exercise our potential to do things better than ever before.”
Both Professor Phakeng and Emeritus Professor Hall themed their addresses around the challenges and opportunities brought about by COVID-19, focusing specifically on online learning and the mental health challenges of students living both on and off campus.
“These times are calling us to exercise our potential to do things better than ever before,” said Phakeng. “Last year we discovered things we didn’t know about ourselves when lockdown forced us to rethink our work routines and how we communicate with our students and colleagues. I believe that was just a glimpse of how we can grow.”
As Hall pointed out in his address, in many ways COVID-19 came along and put “change on steroids”, as some of the things that had been happening slowly suddenly became more urgent.
In a university setting, the migration to online learning – and making online learning equally accessible to all students – has certainly been one of the most urgent.
Whereas in the past, student housing (whether on or off campus) may have been seen to merely fulfil a functional purpose related to – but ultimately outside of – academia, Hall argued that with the emergence of online learning these spaces have undergone a transformation, placing them at the centre of academic success.
“More and more, our students are doing their academic work in student housing, as opposed to previous eras, where this was mainly done in computer labs on campus,” he explained.
“That has changed fundamentally, and in many ways, student housing has become central to the academic project. So if we don’t get this right in the student housing area, we’re seriously damaging the prospects of our students succeeding academically.”
Nurturing mental health
Closely related to this is the question of mental health and ensuring that students don’t only feel supported in their academic work, but also in their personal journeys.
“We know that globally, mental health and well-being issues are a particular challenge for the age demographic of students,” said Hall. “[The] WHO figures show that everywhere in the world, 20% to 25% of young adults up to the age of about 25 have either a clinical mental issue or a sub-clinical mental health issue.”
“For almost every student, university is not just a place of academic learning, but of exploring how to be an adult.”
What’s more, emerging research from the last two years suggests that this has been exacerbated by the various challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, including feelings of isolation, loss of loved ones, physical health problems, finances, etc.
Meeting and overcoming these challenges was another focus of Phakeng’s keynote address.
“For almost every student, university is not just a place of academic learning, but of exploring how to be an adult, how to make our own decisions about our lives,” she said. “Part of the safety we need to provide them with is how to meet the challenges that every person has to face. We can give them the space and the tools to learn how to develop that skill.”
Building confidence among first-generation students
Both Phakeng and Hall emphasised that providing this type of safe space – especially within student housing – was particularly crucial for a specific demographic: first-in-family students.
Hall pointed out that in many cases, these students – who are typically top performers at school – experience a shattering of identity when coming to university, for which they are not adequately prepared. This leads to many of them failing their first year and even dropping out of university altogether.
“We realised just how important a university environment is for a first-generation university student from a rural village or a township.”
“Instead of seeing themselves as being capable of doing anything, as their teachers told them at school, they see themselves as impostors in a place that doesn’t belong to them,” he explained.
“If, however, we can build a very strong sense of self among first-in-family students, we know from quite a lot of statistical data that they’re much more likely to succeed academically.”
Hall added that he believed student housing would be the place to start with this process, and that turning residences into ‘living laboratories’ for understanding these students better could be the answer to cracking a very serious academic problem.
Phakeng underpinned this in her speech, referring to the phased return to campus post-hard lockdown last year.
“We realised just how important a university environment is for a first-generation university student from a rural village or a township,” she said. “So, when we began phasing in a return to campus residences later in the year, we focused on students whose home environments were not conducive to remote study.”
Improving safety, quality and capacity
Of course, creating conducive ‘home-away-from-home’ housing environments for students requires adequate infrastructure.
During his address, Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology Buti Kgwaridi Manamela revealed that in 1994, only about 400 000 students attended universities in South Africa. Fast forward to 2021, and we now have in the region of 1 million registered students across the country.
While some study from home, this has certainly exacerbated the need for student housing that is safe, accessible and of high quality.
“In response, we have established a student housing infrastructure programme to accelerate the development of this sector in South Africa,” he said. “Through this programme, we intend to develop 300 000 new, quality, affordable student beds at 26 public universities and 50 TVET colleges by 2030.”