How serious is the student housing crisis?

Here are the facts about accommodation in Western Cape university residences

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Photo of Tugwell Hall.
Tugwell Hall is a student residence at the University of Cape Town. Photo by Flickr user Ian Barbour (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Accommodation issues at UCT and UWC have flared up this year with the construction and subsequent demolition of Shackville, and claims of “homeless” students at both universities. We looked at accommodation at the University of Cape Town (UCT), University of Western Cape (UWC), Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) and Stellenbosch University.


Arranging accommodation for thousands of students every year is complex, expensive, unpredictable and fraught with problems. The tertiary institutions are making a serious effort to place students in acceptable accommodation.

  • UCT: 6,600 students in 35 residences.
    Cost: R33,400 to R50,100 a year.

  • UWC: 3,300 students in 13 residences.
    Cost: R14,580 to R24,000 a year.

  • CPUT: 8,000 students in 34 residences.
    Cost: R20,653 to R41,453 a year (in Cape Town & Bellville).

  • Stellenbosch: 7,000 students in 36 residences.
    Cost: R22,540 to R36,360 a year.


UCT houses about 6,600 students in 35 residences with the cost in a standard residence ranging from R33,400 to R50,100 a year without catering. Students on financial aid, minors and returning students get priority.

Housing issues at the university reached boiling point two weeks ago with police and private security being brought onto campus when protesters refused to remove a shack, named Shackville, which had been constructed to highlight problems with housing at the university, especially for black students. Paintings, a vehicle and the vice-chancellor’s office were destroyed in the subsequent conflict.

Acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Anwar Mall told GroundUp he did not believe there had been a “dramatic” increase in students wanting accommodation. He said every year some students who could not be accommodated in residences immediately had to be placed in transit accommodation.

Mall said he had been in the residence system for more than 25 years and the number of students wanting to stay in residences fluctuated.

Residences have to ensure that all beds are filled, he said. Like airlines, the university takes more residence applications than there are places because there are always cancellations.

Elijah Moholola, the head of media liaison at UCT, told GroundUp that the university had made 4,800 offers to first year students and only 1,800 had taken up the offer. All 1,800 have been placed in residence.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Francis Petersen has said there were three reasons for an increase in demand for places in residence this year: (1) the number of first year students accepting offers had increased, (2) students who had written deferred exams in January were awaiting decisions on financial aid and academic exclusion, and (3) more students had been able to return to the university due to the clearing of historic debt.

On 6 February the university stated that it had placed about 100 students in temporary accommodation, set up a hotline for students without accommodation to contact, and established a response team to deal with accommodation problems.

All students who were accepted for accommodation have now been housed and the 30 or so students still in off-campus accommodation are those who have stayed more than the number of allowed years in residence or did not actually apply to be in residence last year. Most of these students are staying temporarily at the Riverview Lodge in Observatory at the university’s expense.

Photo collage of Shackville and the Riverview Lodge.
The left photo shows Shackville which drew attention to accommodation problems at UCT.
The right photo shows the Riverview Lodge where most students who did not have a place in residence have been accommodated.

Claims and counter-claims

Student protesters have made a number of claims about UCT’s accommodation policies. We examined them.

1. Are Americans and Europeans displacing South Africans at UCT residences?

In a video interview on 15 February with EWN, Chumani Maxwele of Rhodes Must Fall said, “20% of semester [abroad] students from America and Europe are housed in our residence.” He argued this was at the expense of black South African students who were excluded “to accommodate white American and white European students”.

According to Acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor Anwar Mall about 150 foreign students doing a semester abroad were in residence (about 2% of the residence population). This is in addition to a number of African students from outside South Africa. 

Maxwele, in the EWN interview, accused the university of lying. He claimed 20% of semester abroad students were staying in residence. But in accusing the university of lying Maxwele appears to have confused the percentage of semester abroad students from America and Europe staying in residence (which could be about 20% of these students) versus the percentage of semester abroad students in residence who are from Europe or America (which is about 2% according to UCT).

Mall said, “It is important to have people from other parts of the world. That is what university is about. It exposes us to other ideas.”

2. What is the racial breakdown of students staying in UCT residences?

Another contentious issue is the racial breakdown of students in residence. Moholola said that the preliminary figures for 2016 were: 72% black, 11% white and 17% undeclared. By comparison, as of 2013, 49% of UCT students were black South Africans, 30% white South Africans, 15% international — mostly from Africa — and 7% unknown.

Mall said, the university was “going back to the drawing board to look at how we allocate for next year and how we make offers” as the events of the this year have “been a lesson”.

3. What is the quality of UCT’s temporary student accommodation?

In a previous GroundUp story, a student taking part in protests at UCT complained about the temporary accommodation, the Riverview Lodge in Observatory, that the university had placed her in. This is where most of the students who currently do not have a place in residence are staying.

Yet, in a Facebook post, Rhodes Must Fall has taken credit for placing students in Riverview Lodge. But UCT staff told GroundUp that the Riverview Lodge accommodation was organised and paid for by the university.

The university has accused Rhodes Must Fall of hampering the attempt to place students by occupying a building in which staff were organising accommodation.

“[T]he threatening and racist behaviour of some of them towards staff, their actions in residences where they are demanding keys to open rooms being held for students who are returning in the next few days, have severely impaired the very system that must deal with these student issues,” wrote Deputy Vice-Chancellor Francis Petersen on 6 February.

We visited the Riverview Lodge. The facility is clean, set in pleasant surroundings and near many popular student hangouts. The rooms are dormitory-style taking three to eight people. The South African men and women hockey teams use this facility.

In our earlier report a student complained about the limited transport to the university from Rivierview Lodge. Yet it’s a 2.2km walk to the lower-campus university shuttles which run regularly. It is even closer to other shuttle pick-up points. It is also near the train station as well as Main Road where there are lots of minibus taxis and some buses.

While not plush, the Riverview Lodge is an acceptable temporary accommodation for students.


UWC houses about 3,300 students across 13 residences with the cost ranging from R14,580 to R24,000 per year.

Last week students at UWC protested over a number of issues, one being housing. Protesters claimed that students were sleeping in toilets and the soccer stadium as they had nowhere else to go.

According to UWC’s residence policy, students outside a 60km radius from the university receive preference as do first-year students. First year students account for 20% of the intake. Factors such as disciplinary records, involvement in sporting and other activities, fee payment and academic performance can all affect a residence application.

UWC’s spokesperson Luthando Tyhalibongo told GroundUp that the “accommodation issue unfortunately is similarly experienced by all universities nationally” and that “every institution has a finite number of beds”. UWC had 12,000 applications for this year but Tyhalibongo said most of these applicants lived within 60km of the university and therefore did not qualify for housing.

“The accommodation challenge is high on the university’s agenda … [we are] exploring solutions to address this for not only the immediate situation but also the long-term,” said Tyhalibongo.

He said that the university was aware of 29 first year students who were assisted with interim accommodation in the lounge of Reslife and Cassinga residences but the lounges were enclosed and converted to accommodate them and the arrangement had since been resolved.

He added that 21 of these students were moved to their accommodation but eight of them did not qualify as they live within the 60 km radius. As of last Wednesday the university said 12 other students who were waiting for the result of financial aid applications were also being assisted.

Like UCT, UWC is also in contact with private property owners to help accommodate all students.

For the future, UWC is negotiating with accommodation providers in Parow, Bellville and Kuilsriver. Tyhalibongo said that the main problem was the cost of the accommodation. But, he said, “The University will not compromise on the quality of life of our students in order to save costs”.

Photo of student protesting
A student seen through the window of a UWC campus residence wears a mask and waves at the riot police in last year’s student protests. Photo by Ashraf Hendricks.


CPUT accommodates about 8,000 students in 34 residences in locations such as Cape Town, Bellville, Athlone, Worcester and George. Residence near the Bellville or Cape Town campuses costs between R20,652 to R41,453 per year, without catering. (Worcester is cheaper.)

CPUT has not had protests over accommodation such as those at UCT and UWC but the university acknowledges that there is not enough housing at the university.

CPUT’s media liaison officer Lauren Kansley said, “The demand for residence places is always high and CPUT continuously endeavours to keep student accommodation as close to campuses as possible to minimise safety concerns and travelling expenses.”

Kansley said “The lack of adequate student housing is an international concern and certainly not unique to CPUT or South African universities.”

CPUT is in the process of building another 320 bed residence that should be ready in 2017. It also has planned to build more residences near the Cape Town campus but “relinquished” it to the Department of Rural Development for land restoration to former District Six residents”. Kansley said, “This has forced us to look further afield for suitable student accommodation options, most of which come at exorbitant rates.”

On CPUT’s website the university warns that students who do not apply for residence will not be considered, and students who stay within a 60km radius will not get into residence.

First-year students form a large part of the residence with a minimum of 30% being set aside for them. If students apply during their studies they are placed in available spaces only after first-year and returning residence students have been placed.

Returning students who want to stay in residence must apply, must pass 60% of their subjects, and must not have a disciplinary record.

Photo of protest at CPUT
Protest at CPUT in October 2015. Photo by Siyavuya Khaya.


Stellenbosch University accommodates about 7,000 students in approximately 36 university residences on the Stellenbosch and Tygerberg Campuses. The cost ranges from R22,540 to R36,360 per year.

Stellenbosch has not experienced housing-related protests this year.

The main criterion for admission to residence for first-year applicants is academic merit. Diversity is also an important consideration, with five categories being considered: citizenship, language preference, race, whether students are first-generation university students or not, and their economic class. So-called “special placements” are also considered for bursary-holders, students who excel at sport and students with physical disabilities.

First-year students are given preference. Academic performance is particularly important for readmission to residence.

The university had not responded to GroundUp’s queries by the time of publication.

Photo of protest at Stellenbosch University

Protest at Stellenbosch University in October 2015. Photo by Amy Trout.

Reader feedback on this article

On Facebook Brian Ihirwe Kamanzi wrote:

This article completely misses the transit students who, en masse, sleep in common rooms and halls on mattresses.

Most people did not go to Riverview Lodge. Riverview came as a direct result of negotiations and a brief occupation of Avenue House by Rhodes Must Fall. Students actually in transit should have been interviewed..

This article also glosses over the waiting list dynamics.

Comment edited for clarity.

GroundUp responded:

Between this article and our article of 15 February (which this article refers to), GroundUp interviewed or quoted the following students involved in protests or facing accommodation problems: Masixole Mlandu, Ivone Licenga, Asiphe Nodongwe and Chumani Maxwele.

We put your comment to the UCT administration. This was the response from Pat Lucas (Manager: Communications & Media Liaison Communication and Marketing Department):

“I have just referred Mr Kamanzi’s comment to the UCT Student Housing Office. They confirm that there are no students sleeping en masse in common rooms or on floors, as Mr Kamanzi claims. The housing at Riverside for a few dozen students was arranged and paid for by UCT and the occupation of Avenue House by Rhodes Must Fall did not facilitate the accommodation of students but rather created a delay, as staff were unable to do their work in their offices for three days. It is not clear what Mr Kamanzi means by ‘waiting list dynamics’.”

Readers will have to make up their own minds.

TOPICS:  Housing Tertiary Education

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