It sounds a pretty standard need for any institution of higher learning: the law students of the University of Zambia want ‘suitable learning spaces’ on campus and say that the crushed situation at the university violates the rights of students to education.
The applicant in this recently-decided case at the high court of Zambia, Sidney Mutale Nkole, said the problem had arisen because the university hadn’t provided enough learning spaces for the ‘huge number’ of law students enrolled.
Every lecture time presented ‘risks of near stampede circumstances,’ he said. Students jostled for seats to such a degree that their safety and health’ were threatened, and the quality of their legal training was compromised.
Some students who didn’t find seats, sat on the floor or stood throughout the lectures ‘while others helplessly stood and followed lectures from outside due to the lack of space.’
Nkole added that there were a huge number of students who failed to keep up with this harsh learning environment and the ‘indignity’ associated with legal training at this university, and that some had decided to stay away from classes because they couldn’t bear the ‘inhumane and degrading environment’ to which they had become subjected.
Urgent steps were needed to fix the situation, he said, and if something weren’t done in a hurry, the students would suffer irreparable harm for which court-awarded damages could not ‘atone’.
Failing courses led to grave consequences for students on government sponsorship or loan schemes. But this ‘huge potential prejudice and damage could be forestalled’ – all the court needed to do was to grant the order requested, to reverse and halt the ‘injustices’ to which the law students were subjected.
In another disturbing allegation, Nkole said the university was the highest institution of learning in the country and so its ‘plummeting’ standards should be a matter of public concern that required urgent solutions.
But the university didn’t appear to share the same level of concern.
Registrar Theresa Chalwe conceded that the 2020/1 academic year saw an unprecedented 8 034 first year students accepted, of whom 751 were to study law. The sharp increase resulted from a new policy aimed at growing student numbers so that the university would be self-sustaining.
Chalwe said there was an escalating demand for education in Zambia and the government had committed itself to leaving no-one behind, a principle now evident in the increased numbers of bursaries given to the universities. In all, the law school had 265 first year students, 413 second years, 202 students in third year and 103 fourth year students.
One result of these increases was that the university had to ‘upscale’ its teaching facilities. But there was a problem when classes were supposed to have started, as there weren’t enough teaching facilities at that stage. This had led to an overcrowded situation.
In response, the administration has commissioned two state-of-the-art learning lecture theatres to manage the new numbers she said, and these were already in use. At the end of March 2023, another lecture theatre was commissioned that would have a combined sitting capacity of 550 students and that could be used by law students as well.
Further, an ultra-modern teaching and learning complex with a combined sitting capacity of 800 was now at 95% completion, while the World Bank was putting up another facility for about 180 students and the law school had been given land for building yet more infrastructure.
The university had also drastically reduced the number of first year students, changing its admissions system from an on-spot admission which had been based on a first come, first serve basis, to now being on merit basis.
According to Chalwe, the university had shown it was managing the situation and providing learning facilities that were suitable and adequate. The application by Nkole was therefore misplaced and should not be granted.
Nkole denied this was so, saying the petition was aimed at enhancing the enforcement and protection of the rights of a number of children who were students affected by the situation at the university.
The judge hearing the matter, Mwamba Chanda, said that in her opinion, Nkole had identified children on whose behalf he was litigating and the court had jurisdiction to hear the matter.
She said it was common ground that during the 2020/1 academic year the university had tried to mobilise resources for operations and had over-enrolled students, admitting 751 that year in the law school. There were just two lecture theatres available for use by the law school, that could accommodate about 380 students only.
While the new measures being put in place by the administration were commendable, they were ‘still inadequate’, said the judge. ‘This is so because the available lecture theatres … cannot sufficiently accommodate the total of 413 registered second year students.’
‘In light of these findings I am of the considered view that if the interim order is not granted to remedy the situation, the concerned students are likely to suffer irreparable damage that could not be atoned for by damages as they will be ill equipped to sit for their examinations.
Prick the conscience
‘I am also satisfied that refusing of the interim relief would prick the conscience of the court in that the best interest of the children with regard to access to education will not be adequately safeguarded.
‘In my opinion the injury complained of is pressing as well as immediate and could result in an injustice being perpetrated ….’
She therefore granted the application to compel the administration to find suitable learning spaces for the law students, adding that these spaces had first to be ‘inspected, approved and declared fit for learning’ by Zambia’s higher education authority, the law association of Zambia and the country’s attorney general.
- ‘A matter of justice’, Legalbrief, 16 May 2023