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UG’s accommodation crisis: ‘Beds or cocaine’

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There is indeed an indescribable joy, not just for an individual but also for the proverbial village that raised that individual who gains admission to the university.

In Ghana, gaining admission to the prestigious University of Ghana comes even with much more joy. Stories abound of the feasts that go on in homes and in villages in honour of a native that has gained admission to the nations premier university. Young people from far and near and cut from various strands of the Ghanaian social strata share in the joy and festive hope of being a part of the “Legon experience”

It also remains no secret that being legally resident on the University of Ghana campus is a sine qua non for a successful life and time there.

Aside from the unspoken validation, it gives one as a true ‘legonite’ and by extension, a complete in statu pupillari, residence on campus presents reals benefits to students such as the increased access to facilities like research commons, sporting complexes etcetera. The added benefit of sharing living spaces with the best and the brightest of the nation is very well known.

With all these benefits in mind and with the knowledge that a greater number of the principal officers of the University (both past and current) have been beneficiaries of the comfort and gifts of being resident on the UG campus during their freshman and continuing student days, any mind will be befuddled at the thought that after all these years of being in existence the university still struggles to accommodate her ever-growing student population.

Freshmen of the University in recent years have been the greatest sufferers of the perennial accommodation crisis.

Year after year, the sweet joy of gaining admission turns into a nightmare as many freshmen come to the realization that the “no room available” notice on the University’s online residential application portal (save the fact that the notice  appears less than 10 minutes after the long-awaited portal is opened) is less of a practical joke than a real indication that the much relished “Legon dream” has shuttered.

Guardians and freshmen who live close enough to the University’s campus throng the campus to explore the nearly non-existent alternate avenue to gain admission into Halls.

Those who flood the University of Ghana Computing Systems soon find out that the establishment has no dealings with a situation that is not within its aegis.

Occasionally in this period, some lucky freshmen (or parent) gain admission to some benevolent Hall of residence without any hustle (maybe a few hours of waiting outside Hall administration offices). However, for the majority of these unfortunate freshmen who have become non-resident by chance and not by choice, all efforts will prove futile and they will have to come to terms with the hardships that accompany their new status. Those who do get accommodation will have to live with subtle feelings of guilt and gloating.

Even more pitiable are those students who come from outside Accra. Most of these ones, after unpacking their booties from long travelled busses and taxis are left stranded and entirely to their fate.

The state of being non-resident is so inconvenient and undesirable that even students who originally live at Okponglo, Haasto and other nearby communities that share a common boundary with the University’s main campus also fight to be residents on the Campus.

Only a non-resident can imagine the ordeal it would be to have to attend lectures multiple times a week, with some as early as 7:30 am, from far off places like Shai Hills, Tema, Aburi and Kasoa. This would have been no headache in a city with bullet trains or bus rapid systems. With the current transport system in Accra,  inconvenience is only rivalled by danger and cost. The limited safety and harshness of public transport in Accra remains a bane for even the most affluent and determined, how much less a University freshman.

Important groups and associations on campus have their activities outside the times of active lectures and official academic engagements-evenings, dawns and weekends. This means non-residents cannot be well-functioning members of these groups. The University of Ghana Debate Society, for instance, holds its bi-weekly meetings at 8:00 pm to 10:00 pm. How can a non-resident who lives at Kasoa be a member in good standing? What time will she get home after such meetings should she ever dare to attend?

Students who are headstrong in finding their way to staying on campus resort to various means; some illegal, others, downright unreasonable.

There exists a practice called ‘perching’. Perching, a description of something birds do on branches, take on a similar meaning among students on the University of Ghana campus. The practice of non-residents illegally living with a friend or an acquaintance or a total stranger in any hall or hostel is what is ostensibly known as perching on the University of Ghana campus

Although the practice is illegal and could imply some dire consequences on both the percher and his/her host along with other roommates, the practice is still in vogue mainly due to the accommodation crises.

Away from perching is the equally illegal practice of “bed buying”. Bed buying, in this case, refers to the situation in which a resident of a  Hall gives out his or her bed to another student who is non-resident at a price usually double, triple and in some cases quadruple the legal rate of residential fee at the particular Hall in question. For example, the legal price for a one-year occupancy of a shared room in Akuafo Hall is Ghc 853.00.

However, this same “bed” could go for Ghc 3,436 or more. Again, this practice, although explicitly illegal, is a popular practice among students on the campus. The occasional “Bed for sale at a cool price. Contact…” ads in circulation on student-related WhatsApp groups make it a normal sight. People on both ends of such transactions, i.e. the buyer and the seller are usually people who are in the know of the attendant implications of this undertaking. These transactions occur regardless.

The question which forms the substratum of this article is simple: Why has there been a near perennial crisis of limited accommodation for students on the main campus of the University of Ghana?

I have heard many answers to this question. Arguments suggesting conspiracy on the part of University authorities and management of Halls of Residence are common among the answers.

This group of arguments tend to be very seductive. After all, how can such a seemingly expansive campus not have space for the very people for whom it was established?

I myself have been tempted to believe such arguments. In 2017 when I was a freshman of the University of Ghana, I was part of the unfortunate majority who had and loathed the “Non-resident” inscription on our student ID cards.

As a non-resident resident student, I witnessed, in times too often to count, how high ranking Hall officials allocated rooms to freshmen who happened to be related in a way or another to the ‘big men’ in society. A great many times, the answer to the question of “How did you manage to get a Hall?” posed to my colleagues who had escaped my fate would always begin with expressions like “My dad knew…” or “My auntie telephoned …” among similar others. These responses brought to mind key scenes of Ayi Kwei Armah’s masterpiece, The Beautiful Ones are Not Yet Born.

I was a believer of these conspiratorial schools of thought until I came to appreciate the real scope and nature of the problem.

It all comes down to numbers.

As it stands, the University of Ghana admits about three times more undergraduate freshmen than it has residential space for. This breakdown represents a crisis as a figure of about 14,000 undergraduate freshmen must be involuntarily non-resident. Without an appreciation of the current numbers of available beds in the Halls of residence on campus as against the enrolment numbers, one will be tempted to believe that University authorities have some parochial incentive in keeping students non-resident.

The way forward

The University of Ghana should pay attention to the following recommendations aimed at bringing some order to the current crisis of limited accommodation on campus.

The University must expand capacity. Efforts in respect to expansion have been slow in the face of enrolment figures that are fast ballooning. The University’s efforts which saw the construction of the four University of Ghana Enterprise Limited Hostels (the Hilla Limann Hall, the Alexander Adum Kwapong Hall, the Elizabeth Frances Sey Hall and the Jean Nelson Aka Hall)  if sustained, and resultantly, few other Halls added, the story would have been significantly different. The pace of investment into expanding bed capacity has been slow and the fidelity to respecting some already existing contractual arrangements between the University and some investors is not creating an attractive picture for potential investors.

For an institution that is statutorily empowered to enter into all types of financial arrangements for its own progress, the rate of investment into expanding bed capacity has been a crying shame, especially because such investments “pay for themselves”.

It makes no sense that a university with such name and hectarage of land will entertain a hardship of this nature for its students when there exist demand and financial acumen to make sense of the solution.

Also, the phenomenon of bed buying could be a system if well adopted, adapted and regulated by the university, will represent an innovative approach to reducing the number of involuntary non-residents and creating some relief for such students.

In the status quo, bed buying and/ selling is illegal and these transactions occur underground in a quasi black market. The underlying principle remains basic nonetheless. This peculiar transaction which involves a person providing a pressing need (in this case a bed in a Hall) in exchange for some cash is fairly simple. The illegality is what complicates the undertaking. I propose the University of Ghana, through its Residence Board, find mechanisms to legalise and legitimise this current practice of bed buying on its campus in order to regulate and standardize the practice.

Exempli Gratia, Randy, who is legally a resident of Legon Hall but for some reason has no need for or can not afford to keep his bed could give it out (either pro tempore or permanently) to Bossman or Carlos through a legally laid down procedure that is expedient and fair.

Legalizing this practise will grant the University’s authorities regulatory and supervisory powers over such activities (powers they ought to always have sua saponte). Under this new arrangement, Hall residents  who genuinely have no need for their beds or prefer more the returns of giving them out,through this proposed system, could safely and easily hand it over to those in dire need of it without the risk of duping, paying unreasonably exorbitant prices for beds or even keeping beds that are otherwise not going to be used or not needed as badly. The pragmatics of this arrangement can always be worked out in all parties’ best interest.

These measures, alongside other basic steps like ensuring one student, is entitled to only one bed and the removal of expired names from Hall lists as well as giving priority residential admission to students who live in the hinterlands of Ghana will go a long way to at best, end the crises or at worst, bring some greatly needed partial solvency.

An acquaintance posted something on his Facebook timeline on the day the online portal for residential registration for freshmen of the University of Ghana was to be opened during my freshman year.

At first sight, it sounded more like one of his usual witty exaggerations and less like a metaphorical truth that awaited my realization. The post read:

”     Cocaine may be far easier to access than a bed in a room for a freshman of Legon today. Chai!..”

Indeed, after my long period of suffering the plight of non-resident students on the UG campus, I got myself to fully appreciate the truism of that fateful Facebook post.

The University of Ghana must fully rise up to its mandate of providing premier higher education to her students. It must pioneer the resolution of her own problems. She must adopt a creative and pioneering approach if the vision of becoming a world-class university is to realised.

The University of Ghana, ‘the nation’s hope and glory’ can and must do better!

 

Columnist:  Daniel Nana Yaw Obeng (Undergraduate of the University of Ghana and Student Journalist) Email:dobeng013@st.ug.edu.gh

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