COPPERBELT University management has maintained that it will not allow students who do not have rooms to squat with their colleagues because the trend puts their health at risk and is a serious abrogation of university regulations.
But education minister Dr John Phiri has advised management to be tolerant when dealing with the accommodation crisis that has gripped the institution.
CBU has been hit with a serious accommodation crisis for students with more than 3,000 first year students from various parts of the country spending nights in the chapel, others in corridors of the hostels and canteens within the campus.
Responding to a press query over the accommodation crisis at the university, CBU public relations officer Grace Mikunga said management was mindful of the need to safeguard lives of its students by ensuring that they live in an environment that does not compromise their health, hence the decision not to allow squatting.
Mikunga said it was feared that allowing overcrowding in rooms had potential to cause outbreaks of disease that might be life threatening to students.
"Given this decision, the students that have been allocated rooms are being asked not to allow squatting in their rooms, an act which is against the university regulations and may cause them to lose those rooms if they are found wanting. The university will ensure that each room is only occupied by two people for those with two bed spaces and one for those with single bed space," she stated.
She stated that the trend of squatting also put a strain on the limited accommodation infrastructure such as water and sanitation facilities causing constant breakdowns and other related damages.
"It's indeed a fact that the Copperbelt University has only a bed space of 2,100 available for its students; meaning that much as the institution may sympathise with students and their need to be accommodated, the university can only accommodate the numbers equal to the available bed space. But to cushion the impact of the shortage of bed space, the university has engaged in talks with other stakeholders who may have accommodation available to assist and put up our students in those facilities," Mikunga stated.
She stated that in recent times, CBU had talks with about 42 boarding houses which would accommodate about 600 students, adding that although the move might not be adequate, it would cushion the impact to some extent.
Mikunga stated that it was the desire of the university to build more hostels and that the government was committed to ensuring that this was done under the Private-Public partnership programme under which about 10,000 bed spaces were anticipated.
"It must be emphasised that it's the university's policy not to tie enrollment to availability of bed space as this may deny many potential students access to higher education," she stated.
CBU students union president Oscar Mbewe appealed to the government and the university management to find ways of sorting out the accommodation crisis, describing the situation as unbearable for young people enrolled at the institution.
"It's unacceptable that young people enrolled here are sleeping in the cold. Management has employed extra security guards and they are monitoring rooms day and night to ensure that there are no squatters. Now what about the security of those students sleeping outside? There is just total confusion and the situation must be sorted out as quickly as possible," said Mbewe.
Dr Phiri in an interview said he had appealed to management to exercise more tolerance because this is a huge crisis.
"But then again, it is not healthy to have too many people in one room. I was talking to Professor Ngoma (CBU vice chancellor) and I told him to open up more affordable boarding houses for the students as a temporary measure in dealing with the crisis," he said.
Dr Phiri said the government was working at enhancing Public Private Partnerships that would see the building of more hostels at the University of Zambia, CBU and Mulungushi University.
"…but I do not want to give more details on that until finance minister Alexander Chikwanda gets back into the country. He will give me feedback about the funds that have been secured…we are also exploring avenues to get the Chinese to help us build more hostels, so we are addressing this issue very seriously," he said.
Dr Phiri expressed concern over COBUSU which stormed his ministry seeking the government's intervention over the matter.
"I was not pleased to hear what they had done. Students should exercise restraint. I don't want this issue to distract their academic year. In such issues, you need to sit down and negotiate because anarchy shall not be tolerated by this government; any crisis must be sorted out amicably," said Dr Phiri.