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Opinions of Thursday, 29 April 2021

Columnist: Sarah Apenkroh Parku

Coronavirus and public universities’ accommodation challenges

File photo of the University of Ghana File photo of the University of Ghana

Access to higher education in Ghana is still limited despite a growing number of qualified young adult students.

The problem is attributed to the limited academic facilities, limited family economic resources, and national examinations that set the bar too high and too early for students to succeed.

However, the lack of accommodation facilities for students in and around the public institutions has become topical in recent times and especially since COVID-19 invaded the country last year.

On Monday January 11, 2021 tertiary educational institutions re-opened per a directive by President Akufo-Addo after almost 10 months of the COVID -19 break.

There was the usual mad rush for accommodation on campus, with the COVID-19 outbreak the accommodation challenges could get worse. This is because fewer students had to be in a room than the usual numbers.

The increase in first year applications following the high number of passes by the first batch of free Senior High graduates was another factor.

The 20 thousand bed spaces at both the traditional and on-campus private hostels at the University of Ghana could only serve about 80% of the total students’ population.

The University of Ghana which is the oldest and biggest university in the country happens to receive the highest number of applicants every academic year.

Some students had gone ahead to register online for rooms but could still not access them.

Stephanie was a first-year student I came across at the University of Ghana, from the Ashanti Region. According to her, she registered online but was later denied access when she reported with the excuse that the place was full.

‘‘It was a very frustrating moment for me, my mum had to stay behind days in Accra just to ensure my accommodation issues were solved before she left back to Kumasi where I come from’’.

Heads of the halls could only try to explain the technical challenges in the situation. The rent disparity could have been the reason for the scramble for the traditional halls.

During my interview with the Dean of students at the University of Ghana, Legon, Professor Godfred A. Bokpin, on the development, he acknowledged that the cost of renting around the university is on the high side making it difficult for students to afford.

‘‘It’s very costly to rent an apartment around these areas, very expensive. So, everyone wants to have access to a traditional hall which is cheaper but unfortunately, with COVID-19 setting in, the numbers at the halls have to be reduced making the situation worse’’, he said.

The situation was not different at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology which currently has a student population of 75,000.

The six traditional halls and other hostels on campus could accommodate only about 9000 students.

A challenge noted by the Chancellor of the University and Asantehene Otumfour Osei Tutu II at the university’s 2019 congregation.

‘‘Permit me to draw your attention to a looming crisis with respect to accommodation of students. This is not the first time I am raising this issue; I am told about 22 private entities have contacted the university for the purpose of constructing student accommodation on campus, unfortunately not much action has been seen.

“As stakeholders, there’s the urgent need for all of us including the government to engage in a dispassionate discourse on the best way to provide residential accommodation on campus before the next academic year when the first batch of graduates of the nation’s free SHS students are admitted into the universities”.

Management of the university this year had to partner with some 180 owners of hostel facilities close to the campus to provide accommodation for students.

The university PRO Dr. Daniel Norris Bekoe revealed in an interview that the university intends to further expand accommodation facilities to cater for the growing number of students.

The University of Development Studies, the University of Cape Coast, the Koforidua Technical University, the Accra Technical University and other public tertiary educational institutions share similar concerns.

Parents and guardians are equally frustrated with the situation almost every academic year when their wards are reporting to school. This year was however the worst in history for some of them.

A parent who spoke to me on anonymity explained how it has become a norm to pay monies to third parties before their wards can get traditional halls on campuses.

‘‘I stay at Oyibi and have both of my wards in the university, one at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology and the other at the Accra Technical University. It took the intervention of one professor at my church to get my daughter a traditional hall at KNUST after several failed attempts. I was ready to pay any amount to get it for her. As for my son, he goes to school from Oyibi our residence every day because he couldn’t get accommodation even around the campus’’. He lamented

ACCOMODATION FACILITIES

The putting up of accommodation facilities on campuses is usually a private, public partnership, however, there have been challenges between the various stakeholders.

Out of over 15 private developers who were given approval to build on 32 acres of land given by the University of Ghana, only 4 have made a commitment of interest, according to the Dean of students, Prof. Godfred A. Bokpin.

‘It’s been one excuse after another, most of them cited COVID-19 as the reason behind the delay and the truth of the matter is that our reputation in the financial sector is not so good. So, most of the investors after approval go to investigate about the school and for fear they won’t be able to recoup their investment after building then they refuse to proceed with the agreement. We have had to cancel most of the permits this year because they are not performing’’ he said.

Prof. Bokpin partly blames students for the accommodation challenges faced by the institutions because of their constant agitations against the charging of realistic fees for the accommodations.

For some private developers, they would rather put up houses and sell within 3 to 6 months and get their investment back than venture into building hostel facilities at tertiary institutions.

CEO of Franco Estate building, Mr. Francis K. Nyankson tells me it’s quite cumbersome to get the processes done to build a hostel facility, hence making the venture unattractive.

“Sometimes it takes about six months to get the process done, we don’t have that luxury. Plus its capital intensive which requires one using money that has no pressure on it. So you invest your life saving and expect that your generation comes to benefit. I would prefer building and selling accommodations to get my money and pay off the loan I took to invest.’’

A development Economist and a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Ghana, Dr. George Domfeh, is of the view the venture will never be attractive to private developers until the fundamental issue of cost of credit is addressed by government.

At KNUST, the students’ representative council is contributing to bridge the accommodation gap by funding an SRC hostel with part of its dues of GHC115 per student.

But it seems impossible for the other public institutions to emulate same with the meagre SRC dues being charged.

The University of Development Studies (UDS) – GHC 65 as SRC dues. The Ghana Institute of Journalism – GHC 90 as SRC dues. The university of Ghana, Legon – GHC 16 as SRC dues.

The Accra Technical University as well as the University of Cape Coast have the SRC dues inculcated into the Tuition fee, just to mention a few.

The students’ representative council of the University of Ghana plans to emulate the KNUST SRC project.

The SRC president, Kwame Amoh Ntow, tells me the council will be engaging with the various stakeholders with the goodwill message which he believes will yield the needed result. He acknowledged the fact that nothing can be achieved with the meagre dues the nation’s premiere university is charging students.

OPINION

It has become obvious the issues of students encountering accommodation challenges at tertiary institutions will not see an end soon. In the meantime, the fate of the poor and vulnerable students still hangs. With such a pandemic as COVID-19 setting in, perhaps there is the need for a political will to address the issue once and for all.