A season of disturbances at Copperbelt University

A season of disturbances is continuing at the Copperbelt University, Zambia’s second largest institution based in Kitwe. Lecturers embarked on a go-slow last week in a bid to persuade the government to install new management and in protest against late salary payments – and police engaged in running battles with students demonstrating against the academic stoppage.

Academic staff began the go-slow when the university reopened last Monday – a continuation of industrial action that has been underway since June.

They are unhappy about delays in payments of salaries. Lecturers also said they would only return fully to work once Vice-chancellor Professor Naison Ngoma and his management team were removed from office.

They accuse Ngoma of running down the university, which opened in 1987 and has around 1,500 students.

Lecturers speak out

According to Mwiya Songolo, president of the Copperbelt University Academic Union, tensions at the university have been prolonged by Dr Michael Kaingu, the minister of higher education, because he failed to act on a ‘caretaker committee’ report on problems facing the university, which had been submitted to him in September.

“The union is made to believe that the minister is simply using the issue of time needed to study the report as a lame excuse,” said Songolo, adding that reform of the Copperbelt University could not be delayed forever by those entrusted with the responsibility of making decisions.

Reluctance by the minister to take action was perpetuating academic mediocrity at the university with the ultimate victims being students, staff, sponsors, parents and employers.

“As a result of managerial mediocrity, the Copperbelt University is a highly indebted institution with bloated administrative structures leading to an unsustainable wage bill.”

Songolo said the university had been failing to pay salaries for the last 16 months and lecturers no longer had basic teaching materials.

Last June the academic union unanimously passed a vote of no confidence in the university management, for lack of academic focus, and academic operations have largely been frozen since then.

The minister’s stance

The Copperbelt University Academic Union wrote a letter to the minister of education on 22 June about problems at the institution, and demanded an overhaul of university management. Academics withdrew their services two days later.

Minister Kaingu issued a statement on 9 July. He said that despite many attempts by the university council to persuade the academic union to resume classes, remove threats and hold dialogue, it had refused to engage. This led to indefinite closure of the university on 8 July.

Students were told to vacate the premises. Only the schools of medicine and of graduate studies were spared closure, because they had not participated in the strike.

The minister said the government continued “to encourage a spirit of dialogue and discussion. This should be a normal feature of an academic institution, in contrast to illegal withdrawal of services, and the holding of students as hostages”.

Threats and intimidation seemed to have replaced rational thinking and dialogue, he added.

Kaingu said government was already tackling issues affecting universities such as insufficient staff, inadequate learner support systems, access to the internet, the need for a sustainable financing mechanism for higher education, and limited infrastructure for learning and student accommodation. But it would be naive to anticipate solutions to these problems within a year.

Students protest

Meanwhile police in Kitwe clashed with protesting students at the Copperbelt University last week. According to the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation, students were enraged by the decision by academic staff to go on an indefinite work stoppage.

In another incident, police in Kitwe stopped a press briefing by students from four institutions – the universities of the Copperbelt, Mulungushi and Zambia, and Northern Technical College – who had gathered to pass a vote of no confidence in Zambia’s President Edgar Lungu.

The students ran away when university security and state police attempted to arrest them.