The University of Zimbabwe failed to open for the new academic year after lecturers began an indefinite strike for a 50 per cent-plus salary increase.
James Mahlaule, president of the university teachers' union, said the academics would not go back to work until their demands were met. "We want a salary that differentiates us from non-teaching staff, because at the moment the difference is negligible."
The lecturers accused the Mugabe government of trying to divide them by giving a pay rise - and improved cost of living, housing and transport allowances - to medical academics but not to all staff. They said it was not fair to favour one faculty.
The lecturers went on strike last year, and the university closed before the students could sit final examinations.
Higher and tertiary education minister Swithun Mombeshora accused lecturers of trying to blackmail the government. He said that, in January, they were awarded an 80 per cent cost-of-living adjustment and increases in transport and housing allowances despite the economic problems faced by Zimbabwe.
A severe shortage of lecturing staff threatens the university, which might be forced to close as a result. The institution has the capacity for up to 1,200 but it employs fewer than 600.
The best-qualified lecturers have left to teach in South African universities, where salaries and terms of service are better.
The university has suffered from low morale because of many strikes, and the current deadlock is likely to worsen the situation.
The situation is critical in departments such as psychology, where the vacancy rate is almost 90 per cent. Other short-staffed areas include medicine, engineering, commerce, agriculture and science.
Last week, the government appealed to lecturers to resume teaching on moral grounds, but Mr Mahlaule said nothing short of a 50 per cent salary increase would persuade his members to abandon the strike.