Backyard college students stranded

As the formerly respected education system crumbled under years of neglect, corruption and misgovernance, 2005 to 2008 saw a boom in backyard colleges in many cities and towns.

Many parents were forced to withdraw their children from government schools because of endless industrial action by teachers in protest against their meager salaries, poor working conditions and political harassment – particularly in the rural areas.

In addition, many teachers left for neighbouring countries in search of greener pastures, leaving the students to untrained teachers, some of them straight from high school. Many parents were not prepared to leave their children at the mercy of these untrained teachers, and turned to the private colleges that mushroomed as a result.

“I had to transfer my child who was in form four from a government school as they had spent the whole year without doing any tangible lessons. He had to start again in form three so that he could be better equipped for the examinations. We had no money to enroll him at a private school so we had to seek a place at a local college,” said a woman who only identified herself as Mai Tonde.

Poor facilities

Many churches and community halls were turned into colleges, but many of them lacked proper facilities to be a place of education. In some cases students had to learn sitting on benches without a desk. There were no chalk boards or educational charts on the walls.

The ‘colleges’ had no text books – students were told to bring their own. Despite offering technical and science subjects, many had no laboratories for experiments. In some cases the students were overcrowded – with up to 70 in a class.

“I do not think my English teacher knows me by my name let alone my weaknesses. It is difficult to participate here as we are constantly heckled by other students and lawlessness is rampant in this classroom,” complained one student at a community hall that had been turned into a school.

“We are facing challenges in our studies since our ‘college’ does not have the necessary infrastructure for learning. Sometimes we want to read on a weekend but since it is a church, there would be parishioners and that makes it impossible, we don’t have even a library here. It is very difficult for us,” said Tonderai an upper six student at one of the church-cum-college in Budiriro.

Closed down

The government last year closed more than 106 illegal colleges and many students were stranded. The permanent secretary in the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education, Dr Washington Mbizvo, said at the time that the colleges did not meet acceptable standards. But, since then the government has turned a blind eye and many illegal colleges are still operational with thousands of students enrolled.

Veteran educationist Tawanda Mukurunge said the government could not win a war against these backyard colleges until it put its own house in order.

“There is mayhem in the school system. Many schools spent almost a year without adequate teachers. Pupils are not sure if tomorrow they will learn because teachers constantly threaten industrial action. Even if they attend lessons, teachers are constantly on a go slow – unmotivated because of their poor living standards,” he said.

“It is better to learn crawling like an insect than to spend the whole day sitting on a chair doing nothing.”

Mukurunge urged the government to first address the problem which caused the influx of the illegal colleges before closing them down.

“In the past It was unheard of for pupils to prefer colleges to government schools. The government should first address the problem facing the education system because if they close these so-called colleges they are just punishing the students,” he said.


Indeed many students have been “punished” by the government, which this year instructed its schools not to take external examination candidates. This condemned many students to failure as they were unable to write the exams for which they had prepared – as the colleges are not registered with Ministry of Education, Sport and Culture.

“I can confirm that we were instructed not to take external candidates this year since the government does not want these sprouting colleges,” said a headmaster at a state school.

The principal of an unregistered college in Glen Norah, who naturally requested anonymity, said colleges had previously enjoyed “an arrangement” with examination centres, but but this year “the officials refused, making life difficult for us and our students”.

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