Are South African College Towns Failing Our Student Communities?

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At the start of each academic year, millions of college and university students criss-cross the country to migrate to over 150 college and university towns and cities across South Africa to pursue their post-secondary education for a prospective career in pursuit of a brighter future on completion of their studies.

After almost twelve years of basic education mostly at the doorstep and comfort of their homes in villages and townships, many cannot wait to break free from the constant watch of their parents and communities to live a new life far from their home towns. Home towns that have – albeit of their harsh circumstance – been a relatively safe sanctuary protected by their caring communities, who have watched them like their own – true to the African adage of being raised by a village.

Except for a few study destinations situated around historically white universities, most of the college and university towns and cities are not desirable study destinations that offer prospective students the best collegiate experience. For many, black students both their on-campus and off-campus living experiences are adversely affected by the terrible and sub-standard conditions that they find themselves in at their campuses and college towns.

Many black African women would attest to feeling even more vulnerable, with the constant threat of gender-based violence ever lurking in the dark corners of the unsafe college towns. The brutal deaths and abuse of young women call for intensified action against GBV in safer college towns. Nosicelo Mtembeni of the University of Fort Hare, Uyinene Mrwetyana, University of Cape Town, Zolile Khumalo, Mangosuthu University of Technology and Takalani Mbulungen of the University of Venda, are just a few of the thousand women whose lives were cut short by GBV in our student towns and cities.

These appalling living conditions contribute largely to the low retention and completion rates of many students, especially black African students from working-class backgrounds. This dire situation doesn’t augur well for higher production of graduates with degrees in a country where according to the Department of Higher Education and Training Post-School Education and Training Monitor, about 6% of the South African population have a degree. Of these only 4.1% of black African adults had a degree in 2020, compared to 23.4% of white adults.

The student life conditions are worse for students from TVET Colleges exacerbated by a lack of infrastructure and student support services staff to take care of the needs of college students. Many colleges do not have suitable student accommodation on their campuses and students live and learn in unaccredited and below standard private student accommodation in unsafe student precincts and neighborhoods. As a result, the success rate is extremely low for the TVET sector. This is demonstrated by the 4% throughput rate in 2009 of the cohort that started NCV studies in 2007.

College towns, local institutions of higher learning, and student representative councils need to advocate and strategize for quality living conditions for students to thrive socially and succeed academically. International best practices have demonstrated that collaborative relations between local municipalities and their institutions of higher learning – also referred to as town and gown relations ¬– can contribute positively towards creating better living conditions for their student communities.

At a national level, the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs and the Department of Higher Education, Science and Technology, need to take the lead to create a practical framework that would guide town and gown relations, especially regarding the creation of safer student precincts like the UP-Hatfield City Improvement District (CID) in the City of Tshwane.

To reach the graduation targets of more than 50% envisaged by the National Development Plan by 2030, an equitable integrated town and gown-based student support system must be put in place as a matter of agency for both college and university students.

“Throwing NSFAS money at students” to fend for themselves, is not going to improve the conditions of student life in college and university towns and cities. Students need more than money to succeed, they need a support system of compassion and caring, guided by highly trained and skilled student support practitioners and professionals.