Global trends in student accommodation influence new SA facilities

It’s no secret that South Africa’s universities are short on accommodation, with the current supply only servicing about 20% of those who need a place to live while they are studying. Many students often find themselves without accommodation before the academic year begins and end up settling in unsafe conditions that are not conducive to studying.

Academic institutions across the country have noted the shortfall of student housing and are working on addressing the problem – as are a few listed property companies.

Craig McMurray, CEO of Respublica, a leading developer of student accommodation, says that with limited resources from government and universities, it is imperative that all parties engage far more meaningfully to help alleviate the shortage of student accommodation, as recommended in the Ministerial review on Student Housing in
2012.

“At Respublica, we recognised that our students come from different backgrounds and have unique needs. It’s our priority to offer affordable accommodation that caters to all students,” he says.

Although affordable, McMurray wants student accommodation to be conducive to studying and enjoying a rounded lifestyle, and to achieve this, he draws inspiration from what is happening in student accommodation globally.

“After identifying international trends, we assess them against our local market and introduce those that add value to our students,” says McMurray. “Respublica has tapped into these trends and based its model on a healthy ecosystem that is modern and encourages the academic success of its students.”

Living-learning communities
Traditional residences are typically designed to encourage communal living, with accommodation rooms grouped together, and easily accessible shared spaces. These structured areas encourage students to socialise and network, creating environments that will foster friendships and lasting relationships.

In the US, one way to encourage social interactions between students is through having communal bathrooms. The South African model is different in that its market is not accustomed to communal bathrooms. However, Mc Murray has identified the need to foster a culture of community in res-living and has worked communal areas, such as gyms and swimming pools, into the residence designs.

“Studying and socialising are equally important factors to university students. New students who fit into a community and make friends early on, settle in sooner,” says
McMurray.

He acknowledges that students need break away spaces to knuckle-down and achieve good academic results as is evident in the local model.

Themed communities and res programmes
A growing international trend is that of themed communities, with some following the students’ path of learning. For example, natural science students living in a themed community might have a rooftop garden, or be encouraged to nurture and grow a vegetable garden for the residence. Working on communal projects is a great way for the faculty to spend time with students, and creates a space where obstacles in learning can be overcome together.

Accommodation near a sports science faculty may well include extra storage space for sporting equipment, while housing for business or law students would call for group study rooms. Of even greater value would be the likes of a gym or fitness area, and a multi-purpose space for social events and parties.

McMurray observes that the South African market has not yet progressed to themed communities as there is a more pressing and immediate need to create enough accommodation for students locally. However, he would love to see themed communities in the future.

Although South Africa does not have themed student accommodation, Respublica aims to achieve the favourable outcome that these communities produce by creating a space to overcome obstacles through group learning. To achieve this, the company has set up
ResLife programmes that are designed not only to build community, but also to develop students into confident, value-adding, well-rounded young adults.

Alleviating the pressure of utilitarian needs
A common thread through all the best international accommodation facilities is that a range of utilities are included, from laundry and weekly cleaning services, to always-on-access to the Internet.

“One of the main reasons that students drop out of universities has very little to do with their academic aptitude, or their commitment to their studies. It has to do with what happens in students’ lives when they’re outside the lecture hall or laboratory, and where they stay when they’re not in class plays a significant part in their success,” says
McMurray.

By having access to facilities that meet their immediate utilitarian needs, students are free to focus on their studies. In light of this, McMurray has tried to alleviate the pressure on students by building laundry rooms on site, and providing free wi-fi and a weekly cleaning service.

Purpose-built accommodation
One of the best ways to ensure that university accommodation is up to standard is to build new facilities from scratch, as is becoming increasingly popular internationally.

McMurray understands that while renovating and repurposing existing buildings may be more cost effective at face value, purpose-designed facilities can be customised to meet the specific needs of students. The majority of Respublica accommodation is therefore purpose-built.