The largest student housing project ever undertaken by a South African public university is currently under construction at the University of Fort Hare (UFH) in the Eastern Cape. The 2 047-bed student village is being developed by student accommodation group STAG African in conjunction with East London-based contractor Dewing Construction. It aims to address a major accommodation shortage affecting UFH and create a student community conducive to academic success.
Lack of accommodation is one of the biggest challenges faced at UFH, which is home to over 9 000 students. Currently, residences at the university’s Alice campus are barely able to accommodate 50% of the student population. With this project, the university aims to house 65% of students on campus, giving UFH the highest ratio of students to beds in the country.
“The fact that Alice and University of Fort Hare are in a rural area makes it incredibly important that the university supplies sufficient student accommodation. Fort Hare students who do not get into university residences are forced to seek accommodation elsewhere. For some, the only affordable options are far from campus, in areas with high crime rates and little infrastructure. Accommodation in these areas is not always academically conducive or well-regulated – students can find themselves housing that is over-crowded and under-serviced,” Director at STAG African, John Schooling, said.
To date, each sectional completion has been achieved on time and within budget. Phase one of the project, completed in 2014, saw 610 beds made available to the university. A further 1 437 beds have been completed in phase two, this has been funded by the Department of Higher Education and Training, the Development Bank of Southern Africa and the European Union and is valued at over R400-million.
Due to the remote location of the development in Alice, the development team faced certain logistical challenges. “We had to be innovative in terms of finding solutions, since all of our materials were sourced from out of town. We brought in sand from the Great Fish River are, bricks from Bisho and Mount Coke, concrete, fill materials and aggregates from Fort Beaufort. Roughly 6,5-million bricks were transported from around 60 kilometres away,” Matthew Beard, Contracts Manager at Dewing Construction, said.
The development at the University of Fort Hare also contributed towards the general upliftment of Alice, surrounding towns and local residents through job creation, as well as the need for accommodation, food and other necessities. Local SMMEs were brought on board to assist, and through learning and skills development, will be positively impacted in the long term.
“One of our goals with this project was to train local employees in bricklaying, plastering, concrete works, shutter works, plumbing and scaffolding – to name a few. This type of skills development benefits our own workforce, as well as each individual who learns these skills,” said Beard.
Studies show that students who are not in on campus accommodation have a 50% chance of dropping out by the end of their first year. In contrast, a first-year student in good on-campus accommodation has an 80% chance of passing and is 50% less likely to drop out. For STAG and Dewing, good on-campus accommodation means providing more than just beds. Safety, internet connectivity, access to resources and social support, are all critical to a student’s ability to succeed.
“When a student is placed in temporary accommodation or is required to stay in accommodation that is unsafe, overcrowded and unhygienic, it’s no surprise when they can’t cope. Our goal with this development is to maximise student success through the provision of world-class accommodation, at an affordable price,” said Schooling.
The new UFH student village will also provide a dedicated postgraduate accommodation block and new student centre for studying and social events. “Over 60% of learning at the tertiary level occurs outside of a lecture hall, within the communities we create on campus – this is known as the hidden context of learning. STAG and Dewing’s vision for this development goes beyond providing accommodation; we want to create a sense of community and a feeling of belonging,” said Schooling.
One the biggest challenges faced during the development of the student village was the impact of Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown. Construction was forced to pause for three months, which resulted in delays and changes to the building scheduled. Despite this, the development is on track for completion in December 2020.
“Following the lockdown, we implemented strict health and safety measures in accordance with Covid-19 regulations. Physical distancing, the use of face masks, and continued education are among the measures we continue to take to prevent the spread of the virus, and ensure the safety of construction workers. On a project of this magnitude, we have to put in extra effort to ensure everyone is protected from risks,” said Beard.
In terms of the bigger picture, South Africa is experiencing a student housing crisis – government has acknowledged that an additional 300 000 beds are required to accommodate the nation’s students. “A big part of this is not just a lack of beds, but also a lack of innovation. In South Africa, the construction of student accommodation cannot be purely profit-driven, we have to consider the impact on our students, who represent the nation’s future,” said Schooling.
The student village at University of Fort Hare is not only a landmark achievement, but a positive step forward in terms of addressing the national student accommodation crisis. The challenge for universities and student housing providers is to prioritise the construction of affordable, world-class student housing that uplifts all parties involved.
STAG African have delivered more than 3 000 beds across South Africa, including the greenest residence in Africa at Stellenbosch University. They are also in the process of funding the development of 34 000 beds at universities in Kenya, 4 700 in Malawi, 5 400 in Zambia and 3 000 in Lesotho. STAG’s holistic approach to campus development is guided by principles of community, flexibility, technology, sustainability, innovation, affordability, job creation and transformation. For more information, visit www.stagafrican.com.
Established in 1981, Dewing Construction is one of the leading construction companies in the Eastern Cape. Dewing has extensive experience in retail, fuel, hotel, student accommodation, schools, motor dealerships and hospitals over the past eleven years for both private and public sectors. The company, which is a BBBEE level 1 contributor, employs over 300 employees throughout the Eastern Cape and it is their policy to support local communities and small business enterprises surrounding their projects. Dewing is an active member of the Construction Industry Development Board (CIDB), a registered as a level 9GB contractor (General building works with no limit), and a 5CE (Civil engineering works up to a contract value of R10 million). For more information, visit www.dewingconstruction.co.za.
The University of Fort Hare residence site was awarded 1st Place for Category H (R300-R500-million) of the Master Builders Association Regional Safety Competition.