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Impact of Covid-19 on the demand for student housing in South Africa

3 Mins read

A lack of infrastructure such as electricity and internet connections, coupled with safety concerns, are key reasons for South African students to prefer dedicated student accommodation premises.

The first lockdown in South Africa was very strict and saw all university campuses closing, with tuition hastily moved to online platforms. This closure also applied to student accommodation buildings, both on-campus and off-campus. During subsequent lower levels of lockdown, students were allowed to systematically return to campus and to residence. At that time numerous questions arose: will universities move to a largely online tuition platform? Will students choose to be on-campus or study from home? What will the impact be on the demand for student housing in the future?

The role of student housing in South Africa’s higher education landscape

Based on feedback from both government entities as well as officials responsible for campus housing at South Africa’s public universities, student housing plays an integral part in facilitating the success and graduation of tertiary education students. In South Africa the home environment of many students is not conducive to a fruitful academic life. This holds especially true for students from lower-income households. A lack of infrastructure such as electricity and internet connections, coupled with safety concerns, are key reasons for South African students to prefer dedicated student accommodation premises. 

This statement was proven during the various lockdown levels implemented in South Africa in 2020. Under the various levels of lockdown certain portions of students had the option of returning to campus, for example under Level 2 a maximum of 66% of students were allowed to return to campus. Reports by the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation found that when offered the opportunity to return to residence, the majority of students accepted even though they still followed an online tuition approach. Demand for a return to student housing reached such heights that thousands of students signed an online petition to the Department of Higher Education to allow them to return to their campus residences and accommodations. The primary reasons cited for wanting to return to their student housing includes the need for private space to study, more reliable internet connections in residences, inconducive home life, etc.

Group of students hanging out on campus together while wearing reusable face masks to protect from the transfer of germs.
The emergence of a hybrid tuition model

Observations by the Harvard Business Review found that universities’ “experiment” with online tuition has made it apparent and salient that immersive, on-campus tuition programmes have a superior value to purely online teaching. Students who attend on-campus tuition are able to engage in open-ended discussion, joint problem-solving, experience-based learning and conflict management in classrooms (and in their residences) – in other words, they are able to collaborate, innovate and socialise. Physical interactions with students generate confidence, a feeling of community and University / College brand loyalty while developing communication skills, emotional intelligence and networking skills – all of which are invaluable for post-university life.

The current deployment of online tuition is providing universities with real-time data regarding which courses can be migrated to a fully online platform, which can be complemented with online tuition and which can’t be replaced by a digital medium. For example, the guidelines and policies of certain professional registration bodies in South Africa negate the possibility of students writing tests off-campus and state that assessments must be done in-person at the relevant university. Similarly, some course work can not be replaced by an online approach, such as laboratory work – e.g. chemistry practicals, collaborative design, fabrication, etc.

Representatives from the Department of Higher Education in South Africa, as well as several public universities, have expressed their opinion that in all likelihood institutions will settle on a hybrid tuition approach. Under this approach students will attend class on-campus for portions of their coursework while augmenting their studies with online tuition. The primary advantages of this tuition approach are that it leverages the advances made into a digital teaching medium, and that it allows universities to grow their student headcount without having to physically expand their campus. Having students attend class on a rotational basis allows universities to increase course sizes without having to increase the size and number of classrooms. The implication being that a university could have more students in the future without the capital expenditure historically required to do so.

The impact on demand for student housing

Employing a hybrid approach would allow student numbers at tertiary institutions to grow, rather than the reduced headcounts predicted. If student enrolment numbers at universities grow it can be expected that the demand for student housing will grow concomitantly as students remain partial to living in student accommodation. This preference for student housing over home-based studying in South Africa has been well documented and proven. The conclusion could be that, instead of dampening demand for student housing as first feared, Covid-19 might actually have a boosting effect on the South African student housing market.

However, in an ever-changing world it would be prudent to not discount the impact that eLearning (and particularly free online courses) could have on the tertiary education landscape. Will we see many student studying “abroad” while living at home? Or will things return to “normal”?


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