By Dumisani Mpofu
Harare is home to eight institutions of higher learning and accommodates regional campuses for seven other universities.
Arrupe Jesuit University, Catholic University, Defence University, Harare Institute of Technology, Harare Polytechnic, University of Zimbabwe, Women’s University in Africa and the Zimbabwe Open University are based in Harare.
In addition, there are regional campuses for Africa University, Chinhoyi University of Technology, Great Zimbabwe University, Midlands State University, National University of Science and Technology, Reformed Church of Zimbabwe, and Solusi University.
The establishment of more institutions of higher learning and the increase in student population requires a reassessment of the provision of student accommodation because of the rising demand for student housing.
This is an issue that has not been given priority status. Preferably, universities should have adequate accommodation for the majority of enrolled students, in particular those from far away places and those who come from outside Zimbabwe.
Where resources of the institutions do not permit, there is a pressing need for partnerships with cash-rich institutions.
To cite current specific examples, the National Social Security Authority (NSSA) and the National Building Society, as well as the Urban Development Corporation (Udcorp) have tended to emphasis investment in construction of structures that do not include provision of student accommodation.
The NBS, CABS, Udcorp have embarked on housing schemes whose uptake appears slow. Recently, the Infrastructure Development Bank of Zimbabwe has suggested entering the same market.
While their focus is commendable, as they seek to make shelter accessible and affordable, there is a worthwhile investment in focusing on university student accommodation.
Such rented accommodation will have 100 percent uptake because students are drawn from all over the country with some of them coming from countries on the continent.
At that level of studies, students require an environment that makes it easier for them to concentrate on their studies without unnecessary distractions. For example there are students who commute to campus from areas rife with noise pollution or where over-crowding is the order of the day.
Africa University is an apt example. Its students are drawn from the continent. It means apart from having to cope with a country totally different from theirs, they require a secure and comfortable base for the duration of their studies at these institutions in Zimbabwe.
For foreign students or students, for example, from Binga, Mudzi, Muzarabani or remote Chiredzi, they need somewhere where they will be able to focus fully on their studies – a home away from home.
A stressful accommodation environment – noise, sub-standard or crammed accommodation because landlords are after maximizing on rentals – will affect the academic work and the psychological well-being of a student. This impacts on their overall performance, achievement and consequently successful completion of their study programmes.
The advantage of student accommodation on or near campus means students do not travel long to get to lectures and do not have to worry about bus fare expenses.
Where there is campus accommodation for students, there usually are also catering and laundry facilities, which means, students do not necessarily have to worry about preparing meals after a busy day or when they have pressing assignments to complete.
Shortage of student accommodation on or near campuses contributes to absenteeism and erratic performance. It could also result in disrupted relations with other students. Students, therefore, need a settled mind for better academic performance.
The state can provide land for NSSA, IDBZ and NBS for construction of affordable student accommodation.
It is therefore crucial for universities to prioritise student accommodation – one that meets student requirements.
At the moment some student accommodation is deplorable as it does not meet basic requirements. In some instances, students are packed and the accommodation lacks internet connectivity, which is crucial for students to undertake their work at their lodgings.
Many students do not depend entirely on libraries for their work, rather, they use their accommodation as a place to study.
A survey conducted last year by the International Student Survey, established that 60 percent of international students cited information on availability of student housing as key in deciding where to pursue their studies.
There is also an established link between housing for students and students’ mental health. Being settled reduces stress, boosts confidence, thus allowing a student to perform better.
The Head of Counselling at Oxford University, Alan Percey, in summarizing the importance of campus student accommodation points out that, “Student mental health is hugely improved if they can feel able to engage with other students through cooking, socializing, playing and generally living together in a respectful community.”
While universities cannot adequately provide campus-owned accommodation for students, institutions of higher learning can provide adequate support to students who might require accommodation off-campus.
Having a database of off-campus rented accommodation and constantly inspecting their status can assist students in avoiding stress and negative experiences.
The Government unveiled a strategy to provide affordable housing to millions of Zimbabweans on the housing waiting list. I would suggest that this programme also includes construction of student accommodation on or near campuses.
A programme of this nature could see its implementation early next year. It would address the deficit in student accommodate while at the same time creating employment for thousands of workers who would be recruited in the construction industry. Companies supplying the construction industry would have to increase their production, meaning good business performance and more jobs created as well as increasing the spending power of workers, therefore driving the economy.
This is an opportunity the Government cannot afford to miss. It is time to rethink student housing. The Herald.