A sense of urgency needed to develop housing infrastructure
However, Joan was not lucky enough to get a place at the university’s students’ residence hall. It was a disappointment.
“Since it was my first visit to Buea, I was really counting on staying on campus, especially with the growing insecurity triggered by the anglophone crisis,” she says, referring to the conflict involving armed separatist groups and government forces in Cameroon’s two English-speaking regions of the south-west and north-west.
Little did she know how big the challenge would be to find housing in any of the areas surrounding the campus. “All the accommodation was occupied. I had no choice but to go to Mbomaka, a neighbouring village,” she says.
Wary of being late because of the long distance from the village to the university, she leaves home well in advance of the start of her classes.
Thousands of students coming from far-off areas to the university town for the first time face challenges similar to Joan’s.
They agree that finding safe and affordable accommodation in the vicinity of the university can be a very hard nut to crack, especially for those from poor families with limited means.
According to university authorities, the demand for on- and off-campus student accommodation far outweighs supply.
The bidding for housing near the campus begins two to three months before the start of the academic year because of the high demand.
“To get a room nearer to the school campus, we negotiate well ahead of time with students who are graduating and [who are] leaving town for good,” says Thomas Ebage, a second-year student in the department of history at the University of Buea.
As the university’s population increases, the search for housing intensifies.
“With multiple private higher education institutions appearing in recent times, the student population is surging, without corresponding investments in housing,” says Dr Hannah Kolle, an educational psychologist and former head of the students’ hall of residence at the University of Buea.
She says that, since its creation in 1993, the University of Buea has been able to accommodate only 100 students out of a population of 36,000 in the hall of residence.
Students pay XOF12,000 [Central African francs] (US$20.5) a month for accommodation and XOF108,000 (US$184.7) for the year with a refundable portion of XOF15,000 (US$25.6).
The cost of meals served at the university restaurants stands at XOF250 (US$0.4) for breakfast and XOF500 (US$0.8) for dinner. The total cost per semester stands at XOF100,500 (about US$172). The same accommodation cost holds for the on-campus lodging facilities at all state universities.
Higher education officials say on-campus lodging facilities are limited by the lack of infrastructure.
“The current housing infrastructure in most of the campuses responded to the needs at the time of decentralisation of the lone university in Yaoundé in 1993,” says Dr Napoleon Epoge, the head of services in the ministry of higher education, who is in charge of monitoring logistics.
But the population of these universities have since tripled, without additional infrastructure, he explained.
At the University of Yaoundé 1, only about 200 students stay on campus out of a population of over 15,000. Similarly, at the University of Ngaoundere, with a student population of over 36,000, only 516 rooms are available on campus.
“The students have no choice [other] than to seek off-campus lodging,” Epoge explains.
Privately owned hostels are available around virtually all the university towns, albeit in limited numbers, thus most are overcrowded with lots of structural defects, the students attest.
The landlords in most cases are unknown to the occupants of hostels, as caretakers are in charge of the accommodation. Students say these caretakers are sometimes dubious and unfriendly.
“We are obliged to pay our yearly rents in one go, yet the landlord is hardly there to effect any repairs or address the problem of water shortages or electricity cuts when the need arises,” says Godwin Ondobo, a final-year student in the department of economics, University of Yaoundé 1.
In Yaoundé, the cost of rooms keeps surging. Prices range from XOF15,000 (US$25.6) for single rooms to XOF35,000 (about US$60) for rooms with kitchens and restrooms incorporated.
“Rooms that cost XOF15,000 (US$25.6) generally are deplorable and have no inside toilets. Students renting such rooms have a common toilet in the compound,” Ondobo says.
The students say they have been left at the mercy of landlords who are more interested in collecting their money with little or no attention to the tenants’ well-being.
“We are aggrieved by the shabby treatment we get from landlords with little or no intervention by school and state authorities. Our parents bear the brunt of providing for the entirety of our school needs,” Ondobo says.
But the government has attempted to debunk claims that nothing is being done to address the student accommodation crisis or regulate prices for students’ rent with landlords.
Professor Fame Ndongo, the minister of higher education, held a meeting on 9 September 2021 in Yaoundé to discuss the problems in university hostels across the country. The meeting, that was attended by landlords, representatives of the eight state universities, student representatives and partner ministries, sought to regulate rent across university campuses.
The agreement fixed rent for single rooms across university campuses at XOF15,000 (US$25.7) and double rooms with inside toilet facilities at XOF25,000 (US$42.8).
The minister also advised students to pay rent and bills regularly, as required of them. Landlords were also obliged to improve security and access to hostels.
Student housing and academic success
For university authorities, student housing facilities have to be affordable and accessible because this affects the quality of education they receive.
“Affordable quality student accommodation is critical for the success of, not only individual students, but higher education studies as a whole,” says educational psychologist Kolle.
University authorities say they are aware that the student accommodation crisis can lead to poor academic performance, school dropout and homelessness, thus they are helping to provide advice and encouragement to students to persevere.
“We advise our students not to take houses in marshy areas because, during heavy rains and floods, they may not be able to attend classes. [They must also] avoid houses without good lighting facilities or those with accessibility challenges, because these impact on their studies in one way or the other,” Kolle adds.
Different university authorities say they have also engaged in additional infrastructure development to increase their on-campus accommodation.
The University of Buea, for example, signed a partnership agreement on 8 October 2021 with the Cameroon Real Estate Development Association, or CREDA, for the construction of students’ halls of residence of 2,500 beds. The Pro-Chancellor, Professor Ako Edward Oben, underscored at the agreement signing ceremony the timely nature of the project which would go a long way towards solving accommodation issues on campus.
“It’s not about building houses, but building the future of Cameroonians,” the pro-chancellor said at the time.
However, nearly two years later, the work on the envisaged two hostels has not started.
Professor Horace Ngomo, the vice-chancellor of the University of Buea, told University World News the delay in the construction was due to COVID-19 crisis as well as the anglophone crisis, which has stalled infrastructure development in the English-speaking regions.
The housing situation in higher education in Cameroon aligns with the findings of a 2021 study which found that the availability and affordability of quality housing and especially university accommodation in developing countries is very worrisome and poses a great concern and burden to the state and individual members of society.
It calls for the “need for urgent attention to the development of quality housing to meet the Sustainable Development Goal of decent accommodation for all in 2030”.
Yet, Cameroon university authorities agree students and teachers should have access to decent accommodation to improve the quality of education.
“Students need to maintain a sound state of mind in a decent living environment to excel in their academic endeavours. Lecturers, too, need the same to better impart knowledge to their students,” Kolle says.