A week ago, hundreds of first-year students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Pietermaritzburg campus were forced to sleep on the streets due to housing and registration challenges. According to the student representative council president, the university cited a lack of finances as the reason for its inability to provide adequate accommodation.
The spotlight is currently on UKZN, but the reality is that universities across the country have been increasingly battling with the provision of student accommodation. This has seen private property developers entering the student accommodation market. While this may seem like a progressive intervention, it has had devastating consequences, not only on students, particularly those from a working-class background, but on neighbourhoods surrounding universities.
The growing demand for private student accommodation in university towns brings with it all the challenges of “studentification”. The term refers to the process of social, cultural, economic and physical changes that occur as a result of the influx of students, generally occurring within privately rented accommodation in neighbourhoods surrounding higher education institutions.
Studentification has emerged as a result of the rise of the “entrepreneurial university”, that scholars such as JJ Gregory and JM Rogerson describe as the commodified neoliberalism of higher education across the world. This has seen many universities turning their focus towards maximising profit and, as a result, adopting a business model. One of the areas where a business model is applied is in student housing, which is increasingly being outsourced to the private sector.
To understand studentification in South Africa, it is important to link it with the broader question of the post-apartheid city. The abolition of apartheid in 1994 led to the desegregation and integration of higher learning institutions. In its quest for transformation, the democratic government provided increased access to higher learning institutions for people from disadvantaged backgrounds who were previously excluded.
But, as these institutions became desegregated and offered access to previously marginalised groups, the pace of their numerical growth was inversely proportional to their physical expansion. This resulted in the private sector stepping in to meet the demand for student accommodation in the form of houses of multiple occupation (HMOs) and purpose-built student accommodation suppliers (PBSA).
The development of HMOs and PBSA is not without significant problems. Research demonstrates that when homeowners and developers notice a great demand for private accommodation for students, which promises bigger financial returns for them, they usually prioritise the student sub-market to the exclusion of other strata, including long-term residents. This results in displacement.
Exclusionary socio-cultural displacement is particularly prominent in “studentified” neighbourhoods.
Studentification stimulates social segregation which widens socio-spatial polarisation not only within neighbourhoods where the process occurs, but within cities more broadly, thus extending geographies of exclusion beyond the immediate space.
These geographies of exclusion are evident in many student towns and cities across South Africa, including Braamfontein, Stellenbosch, Makhanda and Tshwane, where the concentration of retail and other services catering specifically to the student sub-market is resulting in significant commercial gentrification.
In my master’s dissertation on gentrification in the Maboneng Precinct and Braamfontein, I demonstrate how studentification has resulted in the displacement of the original inhabitants of studentified neighbourhoods. Many have had to sell their houses to developers or rent them to students as continuing to live in them has become unaffordable.
Because studentification drives up property prices, which in turn increases rates and taxes, it becomes nearly impossible for working families to afford to live in their homes.
But the effects are not on families alone. Small business owners have also been displaced as retail, entertainment and services focus specifically on the student sub-market, producing a distinctive area for student lifestyle consumption.
Access to the city for non-students is also increasingly under threat as studentified neighbourhoods become islands of exclusion, with private security companies patrolling throughout the day, surveilling those who seem “out of place”.
It is clear that studentification is intrinsically linked to the crisis of neoliberalism, which functions both economically and spatially. One of the interventions that student activists and civil society at large must advocate for is the re-purposing of land. This must take two forms: first, the conversion of unused office buildings into student housing and second, the rehabilitation of state-owned buildings to provide student accommodation.
Provincial governments, through the Department of Infrastructure Development, must conduct an audit of the Immovable Asset Register, which documents all property and land owned by the government, as this is presently outdated. In doing this, the provincial governments will be able to ascertain exactly how many buildings and how much land they have available for transferring not only to universities, but to Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges.
It should be noted that the current proposed model of state transfer of buildings to universities requires that the institutions themselves pay for any renovations and refurbishments. This is not possible for some institutions, particularly TVET colleges, which largely cater to working-class students. Government must facilitate partnerships with the private sector for the purpose of mobilising resources to aid such institutions.
If these interventions are not prioritised, students are going to continue to sleep on the streets and be subjected to the indignity of evictions and squatting that has become so prevalent in our university towns. DM