ZIMBABWE: Top student leader arrested

Zimbabwean police arrested 12 students at the country's top higher education institution just two days after it reopened, as the state's attack on academic freedoms continues.

The arrests at the University of Zimbabwe in the capital Harare followed a student meeting held on campus to chart a way forward regarding continued closure of halls of residence and unaffordable tuition fees - charged in United States dollars or South African rands - which many students have failed to raise.

Two weeks ago, University of Zimbabwe Vice-chancellor Professor Levi Nyagura said student residences would remain closed as there was not sufficient drinking water on campus.

The move has thrown many students on to the streets because they cannot afford the transport and accommodation costs of living off-campus. These costs are also pegged in foreign currency following a February decision by the government to 'dollarise' the economy to escape world record inflation that had reached 11.3 million percent.

Notices have been posted on campus notifying students that those who have not paid fees will be barred from lectures. Students in the faculty of humanities are required to pay US$404 a year while those doing sciences must fork out US$504.

In an interview with University World News, Blessing Vava, Secretary of the Zimbabwe National Students Union (Zinasu) - the country's largest student union and winner of the 2003 world peace prize at the International Student Festival in Trondheim - said statistics from the bursar's office revealed that three-quarters of students had failed to pay.

When university authorities planned (but failed) to reopen the institution on 30 March this year, only 68 students out of 12,000 managed to pay - in a country where foreign currency remains out of reach of the majority.

The university was closed in January and remained shut for eight months for various reasons, including a lecturer strike and lack of drinking water that afflicted the whole country and prompted a cholera epidemic.

When the University of Zimbabwe finally reopened on 3 August, police moved in quickly and arrested students on suspicion that there would be riots against the new fee structure.

The student arrests in Harare coincided with protests at the state-run Great Zimbabwe University, where students were also agitating against foreign currency fee payments.

A survey by Zinasu on the effects of forex fees on students found authorities at Gweru Polytechnic College had reported that only 20% of students had managed to pay and register for examinations set for November.

The survey also showed that lecturers continue to leave the country despite the formation of a unity government between long-time ruler President Robert Mugabe and leader of the Movement for Democratic Change Morgan Tsvangirai, who is now Prime Minister.

Zinasu said in a statement that students at Bindura University of Science Education had complained that in every department, one in every three lecturers was under-qualified and inexperienced, which compromised quality. At Solusi University, 30% of lecturers do not have a masters degree, also compromising quality.

"For the past three months Zimbabwean-based lecturers have been facing a dilemma of lack of clearly defined structures in terms of remunerations," the statement said. "All the lecturers were earning a flat figure of US$100 as an allowance."

The government had failed to take into consideration the lecturers' experience, qualifications or grading - "issues that influenced lecturer flight and lack of motivation in the teaching fraternity".

Problems at Zimbabwean institutions also include lack of clean drinking water, shortages of learning materials and collapsing infrastructure. Research at most institutions has ground to a halt.