Students asked to cough up as tiff over unpaid private digs deepens

A spat between a North West technical college and its landlords has shown the depth of accommodation woes faced by many of the 750?000 students enrolled in government colleges around the country.

Vuselela, a technical vocational education and training college, is embroiled in a squabble with landlords it had asked to accommodate its students, promising to pay them when the students’ bursaries were paid out by the government’s student loan institution, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).

In 2013 Vuselela, which struggles to provide adequate accommodation for the students it draws from remote areas, successfully appealed to owners of private lodges in Potchefstroom, Stilfontein, Klerksdorp and Taung to convert their accommodation facilities into student residences. Vuselela has student residences at two of its five campuses; it has an enrolment of more than 8 000 students but can only accommodate 200 of them.

The college apparently promised that the lodging costs would be settled out of state bursaries. Students moved into the residences in January 2013. But lodge owners have told the Mail & Guardian that problems soon arose.

“We received prompt payment from Vuselela for the first seven months of 2013. But then the college started claiming we will not receive any further payments because a number of students [allocated to us] did not get bursaries, and [they] said this means they had overpaid us,” said Karin Kruger, a lodge owner in Potchefstroom.

“If they are adamant that the students didn’t have bursaries, why in the first place were the students not informed within three weeks of the [academic] year, as stipulated by guidelines of the department of higher education and training?

“They pulled the same trick on each and every landlord that was involved in this project,” Kruger said.

Just a portion
A battle played out between landlords and the college while students continued to stay in the residences. Kruger finally received about R200 000 from the college in January 2015, but she maintains it is just a portion of the R800 000 she is owed.

“We accommodated students, provided meals and acted in good faith to try provide a secure place for the students who came from all over [North West],” she said.

An agreement signed between Vuselela and the landlords, which the M&G has seen, includes the following motivations for the scheme:

• To provide ideal accommodation for the college students to stay and further their studies:

• To provide a centre that would meet the students’ need for safety and and put parents’ minds at ease, knowing that their children were safe;

• To provide nourishing meals to students so that they were able to use their time to study rather than worrying about food; and

• “Finally we believe that once [landlords] have taken this load off the shoulders of students, the college will also reap the benefits of this venture. Class attendance will improve [because] students will be accommodated nearby. Eventually, the college results will also improve and will further enhance the good reputation of the college.”

Orlando Ponte, another Potchef­stroom landlord, said the college owed him about R1?million for 2013. “We renovated our building just for students. But because the scheme collapsed, we’ve had to demolish and change everything again. We’re not taking students any more because we don’t get our money.”

Other guesthouses confirmed that they were also no longer taking in Vuselela students.

Another landlord, who asked not to be named, said: “They owe me for 2013. They paid just a portion for accommodation and pertinent services. This is money due to my business, so they must pay me.”

But the management of Vuselela has denied liability for any claims, save for Kruger’s complaint.

Principal Ann Naik said that “the only issue was with [Kruger] and we resolved it” with the R200 000 payment in January. “I don’t understand what’s upsetting her now and what more she wants.”

She said the college’s management had ascertained after the initiative had started that not all students qualified for bursaries and therefore would not receive them. Naik blamed the system and called for a review of the period in which students are allowed to apply for the bursaries.

Systemic problem
“For universities it happens earlier. In our case, the bursary application forms are given to us in that year. So if it’s 2014 you’ll get the forms in 2014, not earlier. It is a systemic problem.”

But NSFAS, which dispenses the bursaries, has denied responsibility. Spokesperson Kagisho Mamabolo said the “onus is on colleges to administer the application processes in an efficient and effective way”.

Vuselela management has urged the landlords to recover the amounts they say are outstanding from the students.

Former student Thabang Makwati, who stayed at Kruger’s lodge while studying mechanical engineering, said this was unfair.

“Vuselela people came to our village [Tlakgameng, near Vryburg] and recruited us via the tribal office. They said they were looking for youths with matric who want the opportunity to study further.

“They told us that the government and NSFAS would provide us with everything. How do they now turn around and say I owe [the lodge]?”

Housing crisis hits colleges

The dispute between landlords and Vuselela college management is an example of the nationwide shortage of accommodation at public colleges.

Information from Minister Blade Nzimande’s higher education and training department shows that only 1?000 students out of a total college enrolment of 725?000 will find accommodation at the 50 institutions this year. The North West-based Vuselela college is just one such institution that is unable to accommodate all its students. “Some of our students stay in backyard rooms in the townships because it is cheaper there,” said deputy principal Tshepo Ngcobo. Khaye Nkwanyana, Nzimande’s spokesperson, said the department “acknowledges that more students are in need of accommodation”. “A process of determining the actual existing number of beds against the required [number] is currently under way.” The government, Nkwanyana said, was grappling with the legacy of apartheid in the colleges. “Historically, the college sector was a small sector skewed towards capacitating the white population. Consequently, student accommodation facilities were limited. “Most of the previously disadvantaged colleges do not have sufficient accommodation. Currently, most college students use privately owned facilities for accommodation.” He said the department was building 12 new college campuses with accommodation and recreational facilities. “This is a step … towards resolving this challenge,” Nkwanyana said. – Bongani Nkosi

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Bongani Nkosi
Bongani is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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