Zimbabwe's economic crisis has taken its toll on state universities that have also been devastated by a mass exodus of academics, resulting in plummeting standards. The flight of lecturers had hit crisis levels, said Professor John Makumbe, a political science lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, the country's oldest institution. Major push factors were low pay for academics in a collapsing economy with 165,000% inflation - the world's highest - poor working conditions, lack of transport and computers, and problems finding accommodation.
"The first major problem is the brain drain. We have a 60% to 70% vacancy rate at the University of Zimbabwe. The majority of the around 30% remaining are temporary lecturers. There is a lot of dissatisfaction. And there is very low morale because of poor working conditions," Makumbe told University World News.
Although inflation is officially pegged at 165,000%, independent economists believe the figure could be twice as high. Inflation in Zimbabwe's neighbours is below 15% and in regional power South Africa it is around 10%. All sectors - education, health, agriculture, manufacturing, tourism and others - have crumbled under the weight of President Robert Mugabe's dictatorial leadership and economic mismanagement.
Mugabe lost a 29 March presidential poll to opposition Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai. But Tsvangirai failed to clinch the more than 50% of the vote needed to claim the presidency and now Zimbabwe is preparing for a second round of voting. In a statement last week the United Nations resident representative, Augustino Zakarias, said political violence perpetrated mainly by state agents was on the rise ahead of the run-off poll.
"Compared with other universities in the Southern Africa Development Community, we are at the bottom rung and our academics are the lowest paid in the region. Another crucial thing is that we do not have the foreign currency to subscribe to international journals. Our library is in bad shape. It is very difficult to do research," said Makumbe.
Because of Mugabe's repressive rule, he added, Zimbabwe was now viewed as a pariah state and foreign universities were unwilling to engage in collaboration or exchange with local institutions. Even student exchange programmes have been stopped. Also as a result of pariah status, foreign donors who used to fund learning materials for universities have withdrawn. Even the International Monetary Fund has stopped lending to Zimbabwe because of the government's failure to pay its debts.
Secretary-General of the Zimbabwe National Students Union (Zinasu), Lovemore Chinoputsa, said the staff exodus had compromised educational quality. Many of the best academics had left and universities had to make do with some "half baked" lecturers.
Chinoputsa said another problem students had to contend with was overcrowded hostels. Many students were squatting with colleagues at hostels as they could not afford spiralling transport and accommodation costs caused by runaway inflation.
Halls of residence built for 500 to 600 students were now accommodating far higher numbers, Chinoputsa added: "Squatting is not allowed so the authorities carry out raids. Those who are caught are either suspended or fined."
Further, the Zinasu Secretary General said, the government had stopped paying grants to students at state universities because it no longer had money. Students also found it difficult to study at night because of crippling electricity cuts caused by the government's failure to pay for imported electricity.
A report by the parliamentary committee on Education, Sports and Culture, which probed the state of affairs at state-owned higher education institutions before parliament was dissolved on 28 March, also expressed concern at overcrowding at universities.
According to the committee's report, at Midlands State University sewerage reticulation systems designed for between 200 and 300 students were now catering for 2,000 people. The legislators added in their report: "At Chinhoyi University of Technology, the institution has three computers for use by 3,500 students and 205 lecturers. The computer ratio is 1:50."
At Midlands State University, the council reported that the library needed more books. They expressed concern over a book ratio of 1:15 and a student-to-computer ratio of 1:25 - a problem that is negatively affecting teaching, learning and research.
The parliamentary committee reported that at Harare Institute of Technology, construction of a much-needed lecture theatre had been shelved because of lack of funds, which had also made it impossible for the department of catering to purchase equipment that was essential to deliver practical lessons. The institution had only one vehicle to transport students.
The University of Zimbabwe campus, the parliamentary report continued, had become too small for the number of students enrolled and there were complaints of hostels, kitchens, laboratories and lecturer rooms becoming dilapidated without any hope of refurbishment because of lack of funds. At a university of science and technology, construction of a library building that began a decade ago had yet to be completed because there was not enough money.
"University councils are in an extremely invidious position in the sense that, while they are expected to be the governing body of universities, they are rendered ineffective because they have no resources. They are supposed to running institutions without a budget and that is why there is much unrest in universities," the committee report said.
It added that work-related learning and internships for students had also become increasingly difficult to implement because companies were going into liquidation or laying off staff. As a result, many students were unable to fulfil the experiential learning requirements of programmes.
Privilege Mutanga, Zinasu's gender and human rights secretary, said Zimbabwe's economic crisis was pushing some female students into prostitution. "Because of the economic crisis some students say 'how can I survive?' And they put themselves at high risk of HIV infection,"
Mutanga said she had received reports from some institutions that female students were "selling themselves to lecturers" in return for higher marks.
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters