Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Renowned University Slips Into Decay

Lecturers have left in droves from the University of Zimbabwe, and facilities are crumbling and overcrowded.
By Ezekiel Ngoni
Once one of the best educational institutions in Africa, Zimbabwe’s top university is following the downward course once taken by its Ugandan counterpart.

In the Sixties and Seventies, the University of Makerere in Uganda was regarded as the premier African university, and the intellectual elite used to boast that if you hadn’t attended Makerere, you hadn’t really gone to university at all.

But under the brutal rule of President Idi Amin, the institution was reduced to a pale shadow of itself.

Sadly, the same has now happened to the University of Zimbabwe, the oldest in the country, originally established as a college in the Fifties. At independence in 1980, it was the country’s only university.

A recent tour of the university campus revealed an institution in an advanced state of decay.

The campus grounds resemble an abandoned industrial site, with dried yellow grass rising knee-high around the halls of residence. A janitor at Manfred Hodson Hall said there was no one to cut the grass. Piles of rubbish go uncollected for days on end, posing a serious health hazard.

The window panes in the main dining hall in the oldest student residential complex, Manfred Hudson Hall, were shattered in recent student unrest over poor food, and are unlikely to be replaced any time soon.

Students share overcrowded rooms because there are simply too many of them on campus. In the five residential complexes, facilities originally designed as television rooms have been converted into dormitories shared by up to 14 students, some of whom sleep on the floor.

Most of the toilet facilities do not work or are blocked off with iron bars.

The decline of the university has been slow and long. Some date the decline to an amendment to the 1982 University Act which the authorities pushed through in 1990, removing much of the institution’s autonomy by allowing government to appoint non-academic staff onto the university council.

Objections from teaching staff were simply overridden, and many left as a result. It was during this period that Professor Walter Kamba, the university’s first black vice-chancellor, made his now famous complaint that there were “too many unprofessional fingers” interfering in academic affairs.

Interviewed by the Standard newspaper in 2003, Professor Kamba – who died last month - commented on the institution’s collapsing infrastructure due to lack of funding.

He said the government was building too many universities without proper planning, and warned that this would reduce the quality of higher education.

“If I were to do anything,” he said, “I would set up a commission to look into the higher education system with a view to establishing what we need, that we can afford, which will provide us with quality education. Poor quality education can be very destructive.”

Starting with the establishment of the National University of Science and Technology in Bulawayo in 1994, the government has gone on a university-building spree. There are now seven state universities across the country, all at various stages of construction, and their students are scattered across different locations in the Zimbabwe’s major cities and towns.

Most lack adequate facilities on campus, while teaching staff are often under-qualified or completely uninterested in their work. Many have resigned because of the poor salaries on offer.

The University of Zimbabwe itself has experienced phenomenal expansion since independence, with a student population that has has ballooned from just over 2,200 in 1980 to the current 11,700.

Here, too, the growth in student numbers has been accompanied by a decline in teaching staff, often as they leave for better jobs abroad.

Professor Levi Nyagura, the current vice-chancellor – President Robert Mugabe is the chancellor of all state universities – recently told the parliamentary committee on education that the university was badly understaffed. Instead of the 1,200 lecturers needed to run course, the institution had just 627, he said. The faculty of medicine had 124 lecturers rather than the 296 it needed, and the anatomy department had one lecturer instead of 25.

Nyagura’s diagnosis was grim, “We are now faced with a situation whereby some departments are nearly non-functional. I do not want to use the word that they have closed.”

Such staffing levels, he said, pose “a major threat to the degree programmes we offer”.

Students complain that they have not had lectures since the current semester began two months ago because teaching staff have been on strike, demanding better pay and improved conditions of service.

A recent university council law, Ordinance 30, outlaws demonstrations by students, and they are afraid even to speak to the media for fear of expulsion.

Students hang around the campus doing virtually nothing. The young men often go into town to guard cars – a job traditionally done by street children. Some female students have been forced into prostitution, or are in long-term relationships with married men who feed, dress and fund them in return for sex.

Ezekiel Ngoni is an IWPR contributor in Harare.

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