The property relations of South African cities, established during the colonial and apartheid periods, today affect the political economy of higher education generally and the living experiences of students in particular.
Universities, old and new, are not immune from the economic challenges facing the nation and how these affect daily life.
Increased access to higher education post-1994 created an infrastructure crisis not only at the former white minority institutions. There is a demand for student accommodation at all institutions. With limited on-campus housing accommodation, the growth in off-campus student accommodation is huge. The department of higher education reveals that the majority of students reside in off-campus residences, which are spread across the cities.
The historical property relations of the cities affect the structure of each institution’s education system. The property relations of the city determine where a particular student will live and the quality of life that student will have. The city’s property relations determine the fees structure of the university and they affect its budgetary framework, its key priorities and the overall political economy of the institution.
Universities are in the centre of the city on land that is typically expensive. University buildings and the education they offer is a service that takes place in close proximity to the market economy of the city. Universities are also employers of the city’s labour power.
It is evident, therefore, that the rent charged by privately owned student residences that are close to the university will be higher than any other type of accommodation elsewhere in the city. In the case of Port Elizabeth, the rents students must pay in the Summerstrand area so they can be close to Nelson Mandela University are exorbitant.
Students from privileged families can afford this, which means they spend less time travelling to campus. These students find it easier to be academically and socially integrated into the university and they have a fulfilling learning experience. They also have quality services that the local government has to offer, such as good infrastructure and security.
On the other hand, government bursaries and scholarships cannot afford to have students housed in private properties close to the university where the value of land and rent is costly. Instead, government funding would rather pay low rent for housing that is further from the university and in areas where land is cheaper. This allows funders to support a larger number of students.
For example, in Port Elizabeth, more than 500 students funded by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme live in Korsten township in a property that was formerly a factory. It is about 20km from the Summerstrand campuses and students spend more than an hour travelling to and from the university using the bus shuttle service.
This is to the detriment of the quality of living and learning of students who are funded and who are a priority to the government in terms of graduation throughput and a university priority as far as student retention is concerned.
Universities are not conceptualised as housing entities; they are mainly concerned with the learning project.
This student accommodation conundrum also affects government and its key priorities. A municipality relies on generating an income from municipal rates, yet national government provides the bursaries and loans.
It is unclear whether the #FeesMustFall campaign realised that the property relations of a city resemble the fees structure of a university — that they shape the overall political economy of higher education and affect the living and learning experiences of students.
Universities cannot be moved from the urban centre where land is deemed expensive by market forces. The state could respond by intervening in the property market and have suburbs where universities are located rezoned for public purpose.
Higher education is a social justice instrument for the health of our democratic project. The state must use available mechanisms to transform urban land property relations for the benefit of the poor students and for the greater good of the country, even if it means such urban land must be expropriated.
Pedro Mzileni holds the research chair on critical studies in higher education transformation at Nelson Mandela University. The views expressed here are his own