One of our ambassadors, Grace, has written a perceptive piece on squatting in the University of Zambia. As always, we encourage debate around a topic that appropriately respects the views of others.

Squatting has been a tradition at our higher institution of learning, UNZA. Traditionally, it has helped non-accommodated students – of which there are many – to find bed spaces. As more young Zambians are completing secondary education than ever before, enrolling in the universities has increased many fold. However, investment in accommodation has not taken place and the bed spaces available do not scale out in proportion with the total number of students in the institution. Accommodation is allocated randomly to students offered a place to study. This means that the students who are not graced with accommodation have three options. They can decide not to attend university, they can seek accommodation outside the school premises – which is very expensive and sometimes far away from campus – or, most commonly, they share, for a fee, the bed-spaces with accommodated students. This is what is commonly referred to as squatting.

Well, of course nothing comes for free! This crisis leads to dubious conditions for those vulnerable students looking for bed spaces. You can imagine squatters are frequently exploited of their money by those awarded the privilege. Exploitation is an unusually normal tradition to every student seeking bed space inside school. These students pay a lot of money, commonly called a squatting fee, which seems to be the strategic leverage part of their normal terms and conditions. To say that living conditions are cramped would be an understatement. Rooms that are designed to sleep two students are populated by up to eight students. This puts pressure on available ablutions and cooking facilities. Spread of disease is hard to curtail and, with the recent cholera endemic, has resulted in the university closing yet again.

Having a perfect picture of the accommodation crisis, it was surprising to hear the kind of interlude coming from the management. They decided to abolish squatting, providing no clear resolution to the already impeding crisis. This dives the squatting students into panic as the weight of finding where to settle becomes a bone to their neck.

The abnormal enrolment of students by these institutions is the primary cause of the impending crisis of accommodation. In successfully running this fact by the management into oblivion, they have come up with a way of eradicating the poor sanitation and standard of living and communicable diseases, which in turn are caused by abnormal enrolling.

Whilst trying to implement the good standards in the school premises, abolishing squatting sends all the unaccommodated students into the already over-populated surroundings. While this helps the unaccommodated students avoid the accommodation crisis in the short term, there is a high risk of developing the same problems the government is trying to eradicate. It is also an expensive option and more exploitation takes place by landlords who know the desperate straits students find themselves in. It sounds to me like shifting the problem from one side to another. Unless there’s a sound alternative, the movement will prove futile.

One of the solutions can be to put an end to over enrolling in the institutions thereby regulating the number of bed spaces of students. More constructive, would be the introduction of bunk beds to increase the bed space capacity for the students. But the best solution is to build extra hostels to curb the accommodation crisis – there aren’t enough opportunities for young people to study at university, without reducing enrolments.

Management has now revoked its decision but I fear that it is only in the short term. Any decision to deprive unaccommodated students of squatting also denies students the right to enjoy the facilities provided by the institution, while still paying for them. Putting everything into perspective, management and the government should dig deep for better solutions in order to secure the wellbeing of the students, as they are under their care, and to safeguard Zambia’s development by producing sufficient numbers of graduates.

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