Economic decline can hamper ambitious student housing plans
Research produced by the Students Solidarity Trust, the research arm of Zimbabwe’s leading students union, the Zimbabwe National Students Union (ZINASU), found that most of the existing student housing was in a poor state, with poor maintenance and overcrowding.
The investigations into aspects related to student life revealed a host of other challenges facing students including a lack of running water, toilets, electricity and other essential facilities, as well as poor-quality food and inadequate medical care.
These sentiments were echoed by representatives from ZINASU and the Zimbabwe Congress of Students Union while giving oral evidence to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Higher and Tertiary Education in 2019.
In light of these revelations, Zimbabwe’s higher education regulator and quality assurance agency, the Zimbabwe Council for Higher Education (ZIMCHE) gathered experts responsible for students’ welfare and infrastructure at universities, representatives of student unions and engineering experts at the National University of Science and Technology in Bulawayo in June 2019 to discuss guidelines for minimum norms and standards of student accommodation.
These experts believed that a significant proportion of the current accommodation available to students is sub-standard and that accommodation should go beyond the mere provisioning of beds towards the establishment of living, learning and social communities.
They expressed that a severe shortage of accommodation for students with disabilities is also a cause for concern, given that most residences do not have facilities for students who require wheelchair-accessible buildings, rooms, and bathroom facilities.
At the meeting Professor Kuzvinetsa Peter Dzvimbo, ZIMCHE chief executive officer, said that universities faced unprecedented challenges that have a direct impact on student housing.
These included competition to attract and maintain qualified students, keeping pace with technology, financial resources, improving ageing halls of residence, and adding more halls of residence and meeting modern expectations for campus living.
All these factors, according to ZIMCHE, demand the development of minimum norms and standards for student accommodation in universities and each university is required to ensure that landlords meet them.
However, Boris Muguti, legal secretary of ZINASU, told University World News recently that standardisation of student accommodation, particularly for off-campus students’ accommodation where students are living in unsuitable conditions, is a noble idea which is not being implemented.
“I want to stress that at present and since 2019, no university or government agency is currently enforcing these basic standards of student accommodation. And the students don’t have a choice because demand outstrips supply by a large margin,” he said.
Availability and supply
The past two decades have witnessed increased numbers of students enrolling at Zimbabwe’s tertiary institutions with the number of students enrolled having risen from just 28,028 in 1999 to 116, 324 by the end of 2020. This has resulted in services and accommodation demands outstripping infrastructure and service capacity, leaving a huge percentage of the student population with no access to on-campus accommodation.
Addressing the ZIMCHE meeting in 2019, Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development, Professor Amon Murwira said that government was aware that out of over 200,000 students in higher and tertiary institutions, only about 10% were in campus accommodation, and those who stay off-campus endured conditions which are not conducive to learning, including security risks.
At the same time, many universities lack the means to address the issue, limiting efforts to make accommodations conducive to student learning and studying. Many universities are, however, struggling to build new student accommodation because of a difficult economic environment and, therefore, cannot match burgeoning student recruitment to the existing infrastructure.
The government, which is responsible for the funding of universities, has not been able to fund public infrastructure adequately due to budgetary constraints and has encouraged public institutions and the private sector to collaborate in infrastructure developments.
But there is a glimmer of hope.
Earlier this year a multipurpose, three-block student complex, covering about 24,500 square metres and expected to accommodate 1,032 people, was completed in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe – five years after work started on the building.
‘Bulawayo Students’ City’, as it has become known locally, is about 3km away from the National University of Science and Technology NUST where it will ease the demand for housing. According to the university’s website, only 204 of the institution’s estimated 10,000 students previously had access to on-campus accommodation at the institution.
The developers intend to replicate the model in other parts of the country, starting with Lupane State University, where building designs have already been approved.
More projects planned
“We intend to start the project in Lupane town, followed by Kwekwe, Gwanda, Harare, Bindura and Chinhoyi,” said Thomas Zondo Sakala, the chief executive officer of the Infrastructure Development Bank of Zimbabwe (IDBZ) while touring the students accommodation complex recently. IDBZ is a government-owned development bank, which has been funding the accommodation.
Minister Murwira told parliament in 2019 that the government views the accommodation challenges as business opportunities; hence the engagement of private investors to develop state-of-the-art infrastructure for higher and tertiary education institutions through public-private partnerships (PPPs), build-operate-and-transfer and build-operate-own-and-transfer business schemes to build student spaces and other supporting infrastructure.
“We are saying the government alone should not take the sole responsibility but accommodation in institutions should be done by those who can afford to do it,” Murwira told parliament. He added that the PPPs are set to give traction to the initiative as the previous approach, where the government tried to pursue the projects on its own, proved to be frustratingly slow as the government did not have the funds. The PPPs’ loans are going to be amortised through the user fees.
The minister also shared with parliament ambitious programs that he claimed were underway at several universities across the country.
He said Midlands State University was building a hostel that will accommodate 900 students. Additionally, Bindura University of Science and Technology is building accommodations that will house 850 students, and Manicaland State University of Applied Sciences is constructing a hostel for 200 students.
The minister also said that the Catholic University of Zimbabwe (CUZ) was doing preparatory work for the construction of an eight-block accommodation complex with capacity to accommodate 992 students at the CUZ Harare Campus, while the Great Zimbabwe University had begun primary work on building hostels for 8,612 students.
Even though the minister claimed that all these projects would be completed by the end of 2022, none have been finished thus far. However, the Bulawayo Students Complex is expected to open in September, at the start of another academic year.
The cost of housing is a major financial burden for students in Zimbabwe. A quick survey by University World News showed that on-campus student accommodation costs between US$300 to US$700 per semester while private accommodation costs from around US$50 to around US$200 per month. Many struggling students are unable to afford the rent and are put under immense financial strain.
The Zimbabwean government has claimed to be taking steps to mitigate this burden, offering student accommodation grants and bursaries to help offset student housing costs but none of the promises have been fulfilled as yet.
Given the large numbers of students currently living outside campus, it will take time to fulfil the accommodation needs of all students. Availability and supply issues remain a major challenge. Existing housing in poor condition and the financial burden of rent and other costs place students under immense strain. Efforts are needed to improve the availability and quality of student housing in Zimbabwe.