(By Oliver Chisenga and Chambwa Moonga)
THE University of Zambia Lecturers and Researchers’ Union says it fishy and unjustified for government to prolong the closure of UNZA. And UNZALARU general secretary Dr Kelvin Mambwe says the coming of the Cholera epidemic exposed the government of its neglect of the University of Zambia.
Meanwhile, UNZA vice-chancellor Professor Luke Evuta Mumba says the institution is struggling with huge infrastructural dilapidation such that even an amount of K1 million for rehabilitation is “a drop in the ocean”.
Addressing the press in Lusaka yesterday, UNZALARU president Dr Evans Lampi reminded those in government, including President Edgar Lungu, a graduate of the university, to remember that “UNZA is the institution that provided the foundational basis of some of the privileges they enjoy today such as a decent education, a privilege that is increasingly no longer open to younger generations of Zambians”.
He said his union was deeply concerned that the reasons for the closure of UNZA appeared to be changing with time.
“As a union, we are deeply concerned that the reasons for the closure of UNZA appear to be changing with time. As you probably know, when the 2016 academic year ended in September 2017, it was everyone’s expectation that the university would open in November 2017 for the 2017 academic year. As the opening date drew closer, we were informed that due to challenges associated with the processing of student loans, the reopening of the university had been deferred to 2 January 2018. No sooner had students reported to campus than they were told to return home until further notice. The university was subsequently closed, as were other institutions of learning whose calendars were also disrupted, and many first year students were bundled back to provincial capitals in military vehicles. This time, the problem was said to be cholera. We were informed that the inherent communal nature of university student learning might fuel the spread of the contagious disease and possibly claim the lives of many students if the institution remained open. In this regard, we understood the closure of UNZA as primarily driven by the need to avoid mass meetings and, given the gravity of the problem at the time, protect our young men and women from the deadly waterborne disease. The government informed all of us that the cholera situation would be reviewed at the end of January. The fate of education institutions in terms of their revised opening date was left to that review,”
Dr Lampi said.
“As you know, the government subsequently proceeded to review the situation earlier than stated and all education institutions were given the green light to reopen except, at university level, UNZA and Copperbelt University. This time, we were informed that UNZA would remain closed because of the problem of squatting (the sharing of university accommodation that was originally designed for one student) and poor sanitation, illustrated by leaking water pipes and deplorable ablution blocks. The government said the institution needed to put its house in order by way of addressing these problems before it could think of recalling the students. About a week ago, the Minister of Higher Education Professor Nkandu Luo appeared on our television screens saying she was impressed with the measures taken to resolve the identified challenges, adding that, in her view, UNZA was ready for reopening. Just when we thought the institution would finally reopen, a brand new explanation justifying the continued closure of UNZA was issued. This latest reason emerged yesterday and was communicated to us through the UNZA Registrar’s office. It said that while the general environment is now considered clean and habitable for learning, the government inspectors are of the view that UNZA infrastructure is crumbling and in need of great improvement before the institution can be reopened. We are now told that once the university carries out the necessary repairs to the satisfaction of the inspectors, the institution might reopen sometime this month end. As UNZALARU, we are left to wonder if there is more to the continued closure of UNZA than what meets the eye. It is our considered position that the response of the government towards UNZA’s plight reflects a number of important points.”
He further said the changing justifications for the prolonged closure of the university, ranging from student loans, cholera, squatting and poor sanitation to dilapidated infrastructure reinforced the possibility that the public coffers might be seriously contaminated with empty shelves and not the UNZA problems as suggested.
“What keeps on changing is the excuse behind the closure of UNZA, not the closed status of the institution. We will not be surprised if the government will discover or invent another excuse to prolong the closure of the institution this month end or even before it,” Dr Lampi said.
“Second, the deteriorating physical infrastructure at UNZA shows the lack of regular and effective maintenance of the institution’s structures. There are many universities across the world with much older infrastructure that however remains strong to this day. What has kept such buildings intact is periodic and effective infrastructure maintenance. Rather than reminding us that UNZA is now 50 years, the government would do well to prioritise the maintenance of the existing physical infrastructure by increasing funding allocated to university education for maintenance issues and for new infrastructure construction. The current deplorable state of the university is a sad indictment on the government and demonstrates the present administration’s general neglect of higher education. We urge those in government today including President Edgar Lungu, who is a graduate of the university, to remember that UNZA is the institution that provided the foundational basis of some of the privileges they enjoy today, such as a decent education – a privilege that is increasingly no longer open to younger generations of Zambians. We further urge our leaders in government to imagine or see the longer-term consequences of their poor decisions today. Their children and grandchildren will likely live very difficult lives because of the secondary importance that they continue to attach to higher education today.”
Dr Lampi further urged the government to prioritise its expenditure saying it really made no sense to embark on the construction of new public universities when the existing educational institutions were collapsing from the debilitating weight of debt and chronic underfunding.
“For instance, we are told the government has secured nearly US $150 million for the construction of a university in Luapula. While investment in new institutions of learning is commendable, priority should be accorded to the existing public universities. Finally, we call upon the government to reopen the university as soon as impossible. The continued closure of UNZA has adverse effects on the career development of both students and staff and will greatly undermine the international reputation and ranking of our oldest and most prestigious institution of higher learning. We call upon President Lungu to show leadership by taking personal interest in this matter, given that he is an alumnus of UNZA. We hope that the next time we hear someone from government talking about UNZA, they would be announcing the date for the reopening of the institution, not unleashing another excuse that justifies the continued closure of the university that we love dearly,”
said Dr Lampi, adding that without UNZA, President Lungu would not have been where he was now.
And Dr Mambwe said the coming of the cholera epidemic was a blessing in disguise as it exposed the inefficiencies of the government towards UNZA and high education in general.
“From the executive, it’s lack of priority that we see in government and cholera has exposed them. We thank Cholera for coming at this opportune time. And by the way, where has these health inspectors been all along to come today to say your institution is not habitable, is not conducive for learning, where have they been all along? In ideal situation these inspectors should have been coming, should have been inspecting this institution every year to see whether the institution is conducive for learning and give a report not to management but to government, which is the owner of this institution. So the problem is huge, there is lack of priority for higher education by the government,” said Dr Mambwe.
And speaking when he featured on UNZA radio’s Lusaka Star programme yesterday, Prof Mumba said the university was old.
“The levels of infrastructure dilapidation are huge [and] huge amounts of money are required. KI million is a drop in the ocean! So, that’s one challenge we have. The second one is human resource; the resident engineer has only about five qualified plumbers and 89 plumber mates. So, to try and do all the works that are required at the main campus and at the Ridgeway campus with that level of human resource, you cannot do it in two weeks or one month,”
Prof Mumba said.
“So, what are we saying here? We need two levels of interventions; this is a national emergency…. We have focused on the rehabilitation of the ablution blocks; putting new taps, putting new sinks, new cisterns and toilet pans. In some areas we are mending the leaking water pipes. By the way, the old technology that was used in constructing this University is such that the GI pipes, some of them are going underneath the concrete. So, it’s difficult to detect leakages and even where you have detected them, to try and reach those pipes, you have to literally dig out the concrete and we don’t have the tools, we don’t have the manpower.”
He said the university management was working hard to ensure that the UNZA main campus was freed from illegal vending.
“So, if you went on the ground right now, you’ll find that the resident engineer with his small team of workers is working 24/7 trying to do that. So, these are some of the things we have done. But we have also done general cleaning around campus; I have declared, as of January, that every first Friday of the month, in the afternoon, will be devoted [to cleaning] by both staff and students and we have started doing that. We are also clearing all illegal vendors on campus and the markets which have mushroomed within campus…”
Prof Mumba said.
And Prof Mumba explained that one of the reasons that had caused over-enrolment at UNZA, which is currently closed, was the high demand for university education.
“Young people, adults, all people from all walks of life want to liberate themselves from the chain of poverty and they see university education as a key driver for them. If you go back to secondary schools, you’ll find that the government has done a lot to improve the quality of secondary school education. But that has got its own effects because then the demand for university education has increased,” said Prof Mumba.