Rhodes University has backed down after rental agents, property owners and students expressed alarm at stringent accreditation requirements for accommodation for NSFAS-funded students. Agents say it will be impossible for landlords to comply by the time students arrive for the start of the first term. Students say the strict rules would close off options for affordable accommodation. The University says the criteria are necessary to ensure a safe environment for its students that is conducive to learning.
Rhodes University has adjusted its requirements for off-campus student accommodation paid for by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).
In a media release this week, the University said it had been inundated with enquiries about its new accreditation requirements for NSFAS-funded students’ off-campus accommodation in 2021. Accommodation accreditation was a legal requirement based on guidelines by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) for NSFAS-funded students, Rhodes said.
“These exist to protect students against extortion and ensure accommodation is conducive to living and learning,” the University said. “It is also a requirement that such spaces be fit for purpose in line with health and safety legislation and regulations.”
A letter dated 18 January advised agents and landlords they had until 5 February to apply for accreditation. It followed an advisory in November that the University would be implementing the policy.
Requirements released this month include that there should be a maximum of two students per room, which should be at least 14 square metres; students sharing rooms should have their own lockable cupboards; rooms should be equipped with a single bed, cupboard, study desk, chair, bookshelf and curtains or blinds; no more than five students should share a bath or shower and toilet.
While students are expected to clean their own rooms, the service provider must clean all communal areas. Safety requirements include compliance certificates for fire safety, electricity and gas installation, and occupational health and safety.
In order to sign a service-provider contract with NSFAS, landlords must provide a CC registration number and tax clearance certificate, among other things. The conditions also include that a student’s lease may only require them to give one month’s notice, and that if the accommodation is more than 5km from campus, the landlord must provide them with transport.
“Requiring all this to be done in the space of a week is unreasonable,” said one operson familiar with the rental property market. “The criteria are too broad, with no consideration for the local conditions.”
“It’s a crisis,” said another. “Most private accommodation providers weren’t notified last year, and not everyone received this latest communication either.
“Many of the accreditation requirements are out of the reach of local landlords and if they insist on them, it could have serious consequences for the city – and the students.”
A number of students took to social media to raise their concerns. On the UCKAR Student Body Facebook page, Muzi Ngwenya wrote, “Rhodes University is a university different from other universities in the country with it located in a remote area with few population. There was already a shortage of student [accommodation]in Grahamstown last year which led to some of us living in compromised [accommodation], nonetheless, we had a roof over our heads.
“Soon, all of that will go away, all because of the ridiculous accreditation thing that Rhodes has haphazardly introduced,” Ngwenya wrote. “You see, the remoteness of Grahamstown restricts it from having a lot of [accommodation]where students can live in. Further intervention by the varsity will lead to most Landlords pulling out their places, students will have no apartments, no allowances, nothing to keep them going, yet the management will be sleeping in their lavish apartments, leaving us to suffer.”
SRC Secretary-General Michelle Makokove said the SRC was concerned about the effect the requirements might have on affordability.
“We share the worries of our fellow students that if the new policy is to be implemented hastily and NSFAS does not impose a price cap then there is a high chance that students may not be able to afford NSFAS-Accredited Accommodation,” Makokove told GMDirect.
“For this reason, the SRC has negotiated with the university to delay the enforcement of the policy to allow landlords with affordable properties to catch up with policy standards. This additional time might allow for recommendations and amendments to be made to the policy where possible.
“We are committed to ensuring that this policy that was drawn up to ensure student safety off-campus does not turn into a policy that aggravates their financial strains.”
The University issued a statement on Tuesday, announcing a compromise.
“Concerned students, landlords and estate agents have been in communication with the University about the issue,” Rhodes said. “After taking this feedback into careful consideration, the management have decided to make an adjusted plan has been formulated to accommodate the needs of as many different stakeholders as possible.”
The University said it had decided to adopt a phased approach to implementing the policy, “with full recognition and appreciation of the broader implications this policy has on students and external private accommodation service providers”.
For NSFAS-funded accommodation, Rhodes University has distinguished between students who have already entered into valid lease agreements for 2021, and those entering into agreements from 1 March.
“Students that have already signed leases with non-accredited service providers will still receive their 2021 allowances,” the University said. “These students must still submit copies of their lease agreements and other required documents to the Financial Aid Office as per previous years.”
Students signing their leases after 1 March 2021, however, were urged to seek accredited accommodation service providers complying with the University policy.
The list of accredited accommodation providers would be published on the Oppidan Union’s web page.
Students could also obtain this information by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org once the approval process has taken place in February 2021, the University said.
NSFAS students were strongly discouraged from cancelling residence accommodation and entering into lease agreements with external accommodation service providers if they did not have a confirmation of funding for the year 2021, the University said.
“Students with pending NSFAS applications must wait for a confirmation of 2021 funding before entering into lease agreements. This is to guard against potential liability and the risk of contractual breaches due to the unsuccessful funding applications.”
NSFAS-funded students not staying in residence are required to provide a copy of a signed lease agreement for accommodation in Makhanda for the year 2021.
The payment of allowances to NSFAS funded students in 2021 would only commence once the University had received the 2021 NSFAS Guidelines relating to payment of allowances, the scheme had confirmed a student’s NSFAS funding for 2021 and a student had successfully registered.
While around 3000 students a year stay in non-campus accommodation, the University’s Oppidan Union wasn’t able to confirm what proportion are NSFAS funded.
In its statement, Rhodes additionally refuted claims that the University had made students pay for accommodation while they were home during the National State of Disaster Lockdown.
“All students who had paid for accommodation were refunded in November 2020 except NSFAS students as per terms and conditions of NSFAS,” the University said. Unused funds had been returned to NSFAS as per the Scheme’s policy.
When are the students coming back?
Under Covid-19 protocols, student registration at Rhodes for 2021 is virtual and lectures start on 15 March. According to the University’s calendar, which it emphasises is “fluid” according to Covid-19 developments, first years will arrive on campus on 6 March for a virtual O-Week, alongside 4th-year Pharmacy students.
Other students are expected to physically return to campus in the second term, which starts on 3 May.
Rhodes University’s Communications division responded as follows to GMDirect’s questions about student statistics and residence accommodation:
- What is Rhodes University’s anticipated 2021 enrolment?
We are expecting 1600 to 1800 first years and approximately 8700 students in total.
- How many students can Rhodes residences accommodate?
We can accommodate about 3 689 in 2021
- How many 2021 enrolments will be staying in residence?
It is still too early to tell.
- How many NSFAS funded students will there be at Rhodes in 2021?
It is unfortunately too early to know
- How many NSFAS-funded students were there at Rhodes in 2020?
We had approximately 3 171.
- What is the annual allowance of NSFAS students and what does this cover?
We have not been notified of the allowances for 2021 as yet. In 2020 the allowance paid to students in Digs was R4 700 pm. This covered rent, food and living expenses. The allowance to students living at home was R1 455 and this covered food and living expenses.
- Please confirm that Rhodes University residences match the conditions set for private accommodation? Specifically, please confirm that all have up to date electrical wiring certificates, as well as fire-safety certificates?
Yes they do. We are constantly evaluating and ensuring the safety of our students through maintenance programmes in all our residences. All residence refurbishments and renovations ensure all compliance standards are in place.
Not confirmed by the University is an estimate by a person familiar with both the University and Makhanda’s rental property market that around 40% of the Rhodes student body (i.e. more than 3000) are Oppidans (i.e. live in off-campus accommodation). On the assumption there may be two students per rental property, there could be as many as 1000 landlords providing this service to students.
Eastcape Midlands College students back already
Spokesperson for Eastcape Midlands College Elmari van der Merwe said registration, and certain classes, were already under way in Makhanda.
“EMC is doing everything to the best of our ability to ensure full compliance with and adherence to the Covid-19 regulations in accordance with the President and Minister’s call to protect all staff and students,” Van der Merwe said. “A Covid-19 Steering Committee is in place and the committee has compiled a Covid-19 Action Plan with guidelines to control and minimise the spread of the virus.”
Registration and commencement of classes in Makhanda were as follows:
|Programme||Levels||Registration dates||Class commencement dates|
|R191 Business||N4||19 Jan 2021 – 22 Jan 2021||25 Jan|
|N5||25 Jan 2021||1 Feb|
|N6||26 Jan 2021||1 Feb|
|NCV||L2||19 Jan 2021 – 22 Jan 2021||25 Jan|
|L3||4 Feb 2021||15 Feb|
|L4||4 Feb 2021||15Feb|
NSFAS funding for 2021
Nzimande announced in his 18 January address that tertiary institutions would open for the academic year between early March and Mid-April. The start of the 2021 Academic Year for first time entries has been aligned with the availability of Department of Basic Education National Senior Certificate (NSC) examination results.
In his 18 January speech, Nzimande said NSFAS had recorded over 750 000 applications for the 2021 academic year – 185 000 more than for 2020 applications., More than 460 000 (61%) of the applicants are SASSA beneficiaries.
The evaluation of applications began in December 2020 and was due to be finalised in mid-February, Nzimande said.
Because of the emphasis on virtual learning under Covid-19, NSFAS-funded students will buy laptops through their learning materials allowance.
Nzimande said the post-secondary education and training sector was negotiating with mobile network operators for a long-term solution to the provision of data.
“Our intention is to make sure that no student gets left behind during these turbulent times of the pandemic, but also find a sustainable long-term strategy that ensures that the PSET sector does not revert back to preCOVID status in relation to access to online resources by students and lecturers,” Nzimande said.
“Unlike in 2020, when we were dealing with one academic year, at this point in time we are dealing with the completion of the 2020 academic year and the opening of the 2021 academic year.”
He was confident that the academic year would be successfully completed by the end of February for most and by March for all institutions.
Nzimande said the zero-rating of educational websites remained a priority and that where connectivity was poor, students would be supported through “innovative mechanisms” for ensuring they access teaching and learning support material.
The Department’s Covid Responsiveness Grant is intended to support universities to implement a mix of physical and virtual learning, as well as safety plans.
“Students who can continue studying from home are being requested to do so. However, many students who have to complete their academic programmes and have difficulty doing so away from campus have returned,” Nzimande said.
Nzimande said students would return to TVET colleges in a staggered manner on 25 January, and 1, 8 and 15 February. Those returning in February would be provided with remote learning support, Nzimande said.
- This article was edited on 28 January 2021. Now included are: a response to specific queries from Rhodes University about student numbers and Rhodes residences, as well as comments from people familiar with the property rental industry and students.