A THES special report on the eve of a meeting of Africa's education ministers
As the brain drain intensifies, an indefinite strike could paralyse the University of Zambia next January as academics begin a major offensive to improve their pay and conditions.
Lecturers, who claim they are the most poorly paid in the southern Africa region, are demanding a doubling of their salaries, the payment of a backlog of benefits and a package of basic perks.
The university lost more than 300 staff between 1999 and 2001, according to a survey. Ninety per cent of those who gave a reason said they left for better conditions. Most went to the Zambian private sector, the US, South Africa or Botswana.
The brain drain has become a national concern, and the departure of 18 staff to better-paying posts in Swaziland and Lesotho, both smaller countries, is a source of embarrassment. One Unza professor said: "Those who remain do so only out of a sense of patriotism."
Trywell Kalusopa, leader of lecturers' and researchers' union Unzalaru, said: "This is the worst situation since I began working here ten years ago."
The union represents 300 of the 481 academic staff. Mr Kalusopa said: "It is not that we are seeking a culture of comfort. But we need to work in a conducive environment. We understand that we must sacrifice. But our politicians are not sacrificing. They should clean up their books between now and January, when we open for the new academic year. We will go on a very serious, prolonged strike until they do this."
The union presented its demands in June, and negotiations were expected to begin this month. Professors earn £240 a month after tax; lecturers £187. Pension contributions, deducted at source by law, have not been passed on by the university to the local superannuation fund, leaving 52 recent retirees without income.
Unza is often beset by strikes and go-slows owing to late payment of salaries and non-payment of benefits, typically extending the length of time it takes to complete a degree from four years to six.
In 1997, the then president, Frederick Chiluba, appointed a commission of inquiry into the operations of Zambia's two universities, citing "incessant disturbances that quite often compelled the university authorities to close the institutions". None of the commission's recommendations was implemented.
Current president Levy Mwanawasa has on several occasions promised action to halt the brain drain.