Studentification of Bay suburbs needs more research
The significant changes in the policies of the democratic government on the funding of higher education have transformed both the demographics of the university and those of the Port Elizabeth city.
Annual reports of the university sent to the government indicate that between 2012 and 2019, the number of students attending Nelson Mandela University increased by 29%.
Adding students who are enrolling in the public and private colleges in the city increases this number even further.
In the main, it is students who come from the rural communities and townships of this region and the broader nation who have accessed the system.
The Planning Commission and the World Bank predict that given the declaration of free education in 2017, this increase of student enrolments will triple by 2030.
The university is racing against time to avail the necessary infrastructure to serve this unprecedented increase in its student population.
Its biggest challenge is its history and the burden it has placed on it in the present.
The apartheid government excluded the black majority from higher education while ensuring that universities became small institutions built in suburbs for the exclusive service and convenience of the white minority class.
Today the university is under massive financial pressure and is also confronted with massification, the burden of having to enrol the entire population using the limited infrastructure that was constructed to serve a minority.
For instance, today the university only has 4,000 beds on campus to accommodate 28,000 students.
In other words, close to 86% of the students are accommodated by private business players.
The absence of a conducive public transport service in the city means that the university must drill further into its own financial resources to provide a shuttle service for its students to commute between their offcampus residences and the four university campuses.
Coming back to the dynamics of the city, the suburbs of Port Elizabeth have been engulfed by what I call studentification.
This entails a sudden settlement of students as a distinct population group in houses and communities that were previously considered for families.
In the affected areas, this has changed the property market, the orientation of local businesses, the cohesion of the communities and definitely the sociopolitical approach of the municipality.
Property owners have rearranged their houses for the student market.
Some families have moved out of the university radius and availed their homes for a rental business.
This move is not without its challenges for these property owners.
The municipality has moved in on them, demanding high rates and taxes.
In addition, the remaining families who did not move out of their homes are in constant conflict with the new student tenants about the noise they make at weekends.
This lucrative student market has also increased the value of properties in these areas.
Private big businesses have also come into the picture in various ways.
The Campus Key Group has constructed high rise luxury buildings, purposely built for student accommodation, right at the centre of the student radius in Summerstrand, to target highincome students.
Other big businesses have studied the market of low-income students, and have converted offices, warehouses and factories on the fringes of the city to be availed as big properties to accommodate the mass market of the state-funded student population.
This shows that the human development aspect of SA’s public investment in higher education is actually synonymous with the private making of commercial profit.
Local businesses have also begun to provide their services and products to establish a foothold in the student market.
Retailers and fast food restaurants have student discounts and shopping malls have long queues in the afternoons and weekends.
Coffee shops are investing on Wi-Fi and movie houses are linking their price levels in relation to the travel agencies.
A student buys five movie tickets to get a cheaper flight for the winter holidays.
Entertainment clubs charge no entrance fees in exchange for hefty purchases of drinks and hubbly.
The municipality is also beginning to think of reconfiguring public spaces for the private use of students.
Briefly, the student city, like all other aspects of urban life, is being heavily commodified by the hybrid and business-oriented approach in handling studentification.
The concluding question then is where next for the student city?
The limitation of urban planning to the exclusive disciplines of geography is beginning to be enlarged and reformulated by other sociological complexities of the post-apartheid SA socioeconomic and cultural convolutions that confront the inequalities of urban life and higher education.
Given these impacts, the ongoing story of studentification, urban infrastructure and the developing student city are instances that are too important to ignore in the context of Port Elizabeth.
This is why urgent further research is needed.
● Pedro Mzileni is a PhD sociology candidate at Nelson Mandela University.