It’s difficult to imagine: 38 university students sharing a four-bedroomed house in Harare’s plush Mt Pleasant suburb, something which poses health risks and psychological problems resulting from overcrowding.
This is the current situation regarding the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) as students struggle for accommodation.
In this situation, 10 students from as far as Bulawayo find themselves cramped up in one bedroom, sharing a kitchen, lounge, dining room, three toilets and two bathrooms for which they pay US$400 per semester, inclusive of accommodation, breakfast, lunch and supper.
This house in question is among many in Mt Pleasant, the suburb the university is situated, where renting out rooms to desperate students mainly from outside Harare, who cannot be accommodated on campus, has become a ruthless money-spinning activity.
The Zimbabwe Independent visited one of such houses on Churchill Road in Alexandra Park, a walking distance from the university and heard a similar story.
A woman at the green gate leading to the house denied this reporter entry into the premises saying the house was full. She, however, said each student was required to pay US$60 per month, excluding food.
Investigations revealed that 16 students are accommodated in each of the three bedrooms in the practically run-down house.
According to media reports as of 2011, the UZ had 4 287 rooms on campus for students, but is still in need of more accommodation due to the ballooning student numbers. However, due to the economic challenges bedeviling the country, the university has failed to construct additional student accommodation flats.
Students find squatting in overcrowded conditions cheaper after failing to secure accommodation at the university, but the congested dwellings put a strain on their studies and make life difficult for them.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), overcrowding is one of the major factors in the transmission of diseases with epidemic potential such as acute respiratory infections, meningitis, typhus, cholera and scapies. Outbreaks of diseases, WHO says, are more frequent and more severe when population density is high. Overcrowding also has negative psychological effects.
The accommodation issue makes up just a fraction of the problems facing students at the once prestigious UZ, which produced some of the country’s leading civic, business and political leaders.
Some of the problems facing the students include transport and financial problems. To raise money for tuition, accommodation and their general upkeep, students are turning to crime and commercial sex.
The deteriorating standards at the UZ became a subject of debate on the social media last week, with current and former students bemoaning the quality of education.
The UZ, which was once a centre of academic excellence that attracted academics and students from across the region boasting of state-of-the-art learning facilities and was highly ranked in research and publication, was attacked on Facebook for the deteriorating standards. Former and current students criticised the UZ for forcing students to carry their identification cards around their necks and failure of which would amount to a US$10 fine while security guards described as GBs- “green bombers” by students were accused of harassment.
The students said this was a “systems of surveillance control” that has “turned that wonderful place into an open prison”.
“What’s shocking is that the young people there have accepted that badge of servitude as if it’s some kind of honour because they risk being expelled. Standards at our once prestigious higher institution of learning have deteriorated and no one seems to care,” said a disgruntled commentator, who refused to be named.
The UZ opened this week and when the Independent visited the campus students were still registering, days after last Friday deadline.
“It’s just ridiculous,” said a male student in the arts department, who preferred anonymity. “The university has not invested monies in expanding the halls of residents even though they are conscious that the enrolment has been ballooning over the years. As a result, accommodation is scarce and most students from outside Harare are currently stranded.”
A female student studying political science,who also preferred not to be named, complained about the “sorry state” of the main library, which she said is filled with old and tattered books and a handful of computers, which in most cases are not functional and have no access to internet.
“It is common place to see students squatting on stairways and corridors scrounging for Wi-Fi at an institution of higher learning where such facilities must be readily available,” she said.
“Most departments have no computer labs and have to wait for hours for their turns to enter the computer center with less than 20 computers to access something from the internet.”
Social commentator Maxwell Saungweme said what is happening at the UZ is pathetic and deplorable.
Saungweme said: “Government should be ashamed that they are doing nothing when students are squatting like rats. Their priorities are skewed. Instead of investing on improving accommodation, library and learning facilities for the university, they invest in surveillance. There is a security department whose primary role is to stifle student activism and academic freedom, and that is funded at the expense of better learning facilities and environment.