Unizulu plans to splurge on ‘overpriced’ student housing

The University of Zululand is facing another property scandal, this time over its plan to buy seven blocks of flats for R72.5-million.

Unizulu is awaiting approval from the department of higher education to buy 90 two-bedroom, furnished units in Richards Bay to house 350 students.

Estate agents said this week the asking price for a two-bedroom flat was between R550 000 and R600 000 and that the most the university should pay for 90 units, excluding furniture, was R54-million.

Eyebrows have also been raised because the selling price of the blocks, known as Bay Sun Lodge, excludes VAT, transfer duty and the estate agent’s commission.

In a document submitted to Unizulu’s council, the university said the flats were furnished and that to buy new furniture and fittings “would cost in excess of R10-million”.

An estate agent said that amount was “way off the base” because it worked out to more than R111 000 a unit, which was “ridiculously high” for furnishing student accommodation.

“If I went shopping for furniture for a two-bedroom apartment for students, I could get that for R30 000.”

He said the R72.5-million selling price was “a bit higher than what was fair”.

But the manager of Bay Sun Lodge, Dee Janse van Vuuren, was adamant that the asking price for the property, including the furniture and fittings, was not exorbitant. “I believe it’s a fair price. Everything that’s in here is top of the range. It’s quality and value for money.”

She said each unit had a king-sized bed, two single beds and a “top-of-the-range” lounge suite.

A Unizulu staff member, who did not wish to be identified, said he was reliably informed that the university did not appoint a property valuator to evaluate the flats. “For that price, one could have definitely bought more rooms.”

He said that excluding the estate agent’s commission from the purchase price “opened the gates for financial manipulation”.

Another staff member said Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande continued making statements about there being no money for higher education “yet he allows the misuse of millions in student funds at Unizulu. Good governance, transparency and accountability is deliberately nonexistent at the university in order to open the floodgates to rampant looting of millions.”

In the document, the university stated that the need for bed spaces was urgent because the rental property where students were living was seven kilometres from the campus. Bay Sun Lodge was just two kilometres away.

The 4 675 m2 plot of land on which Bay Sun Lodge is built was bought in November 2004 for R475 608. It is registered in the name of Misar Property Trust. Unizulu said the property was originally on the market for R95-million, excluding fittings, furniture, VAT and transfer duty.

“But the trustees have now indicated that they would accept an offer from the university of R72.5-million inclusive of fixtures and fittings exclusive of VAT, transfer duty or commission. The fittings include a fully equipped kitchen, bathroom, living room and two bedrooms with beds.”

Unizulu was given almost R400-million for infrastructure development by the department for the 2012-2015 period.

The university said that, to date, less than R7-million has been recorded by the department as having been spent.

“This is all on preliminary works with no substantial buildings being completed. The DHET [department of higher education and training] has confirmed that the university’s slow spending has had a negative effect on the amount awarded for infrastructure in 2015-2016, which was just R35-million.”

It stated: “The vendors of Bay Sun Lodge are keen to sell and reduced the asking price in the expectation of a swift transfer. A speedy agreement of the deal is also to the advantage of the university so that all necessary transfers and preparations can be made in good time for the new academic year in 2017. The current accommodation agreements in Richards Bay come to an end in mid-December.”

According to the document, the executive management of Unizulu supported and endorsed the proposal to buy the property in May.

The university’s registrar, Dewald Janse van Rensburg, told staff and students in June that the university’s council had also approved the purchase of student accommodation in Richards Bay.

“This is part of council’s strategy to improve its housing infrastructure for both students and staff to support its attraction and retention of top talent at both staff and student level.

“The purchase of the Richards Bay accommodation is part of a much bigger scheme to provide adequate and appropriate living accommodation for our students.”

Gcina Nhleko, the director of communications and marketing at Unizulu, said in a statement that the university had 16 000 students and only 4 000 beds in university-owned residences.

“It is constantly looking for opportunities to increase its number of bed spaces. An opportunity has been identified which requires ministerial approval. A request has been made [to the department] and we await a response.”

She said bed space costs “were evaluated and benchmarked against sector average costs”.

The university was criticised after it spent more than R26-million to buy seven luxury houses for executives at the exclusive Zini River estate in the seaside resort of Mtunzini on the North Coast late last year.

In addition to this, several million rands were splurged on furniture, household appliances, curtains and linen to furnish these homes.

One of the palatial houses, bought for R5-million, is occupied by the vice-chancellor, Professor Xoliswa Mtose, although she has a house on campus worth R4.7-million.

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Prega Govender
Prega Govender is the Mail & Guardians education editor. He was a journalist at the Sunday Times for almost 20 years before joining the M&G in May 2016. He has written extensively on education issues pertaining to both the basic and higher education sectors.

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