Students at the University of Zimbabwe have not attended classes for months due to a shortage of money. The country's oldest and biggest institution of higher learning is on the verge of collapse.

Established in 1952, the University of Zimbabwe was for a long time the pride of the country. Most of the people in government are among its alumni. But the university has suffered financially as the fortunes of the country waned.

Today it is a pale shadow of itself, with infrastructure in a state of neglect and no running water or food for the staff and students. And students have not attended classes for almost a year.

Government Phiri, the chairman of the Association of University Teachers, told VOA the university's problems began to worsen almost ten years ago.

"Things have been going wrong starting around 2000. It's a situation where we now started getting our salaries on an irregular basis until they just about dried up. In June 2008 when we last got the equivalent of $5 that was the last time that I can say we got a salary as university employees, not just academics but all university employees. Right now we are just like every Zimbabwean state-sponsored institution we are getting the US$100 that are due to everybody," Phiri said.

Only about 1,000 of the university's 12,000 students have paid fees. The majority of those who have paid, Phiri said, are sponsored by companies. The government, which used to fund the institution, has not done so for some time because it lacks money.

Phiri said even the most basic teaching and learning materials such as writing paper and chalk are in short supply. All cafeterias on the campus have been shut down and the farm that used to provide food for the institution is not productive anymore. Most of the vehicles for field research are parked, immobile, at the university. Most are broken down while there is no fuel for the others.

VOA tried, without success, to get a comment from the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education, but recently Stan Mudenge, the minister, told parliament that UNICEF is drilling some water boreholes at the university and the institution would open as soon as the boreholes are ready. However, Phiri said, since water is not the only problem, the university is unlikely to open any time soon.

"We as a union have put our position on the table. We have said for us to come back to work we need the addressing of a total package and that is salaries, water, contact leave, sabbatical leave, food etcetera, so this piecemeal fashion of trying to address one thing at a time will not force us to go back to work," Phiri said.

Some students who said they had come to check on when the university would open spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity. They are among those who have not paid their fees and say they cannot afford the amounts the university is asking for.

"I am not going to pay because I do not have that amount of money, $400 [per semester] that is just too much for me,"  one student said.

"My tuition only excluding accommodation is $500.  My father is a civil servant [and] he is getting paid $100 a month.  I do not even know where I am going to get that money from," said another.

Phiri said under normal circumstances the government would pay for the students but since it declared its insolvency that is not likely. He said about four million dollars is needed to get the university back on its feet.