Some university students in Zimbabwe have turned to sex work and “other immoral means” to pay their bills, main opposition leader, the MDC’s Morgan Tsvangirai, claimed on Tuesday.

Tsvangirai’s comments came after the main student union, the Zimbabwe National Students Union (Zinasu), said thousands of students were dropping out of their institutions because of “debilitating financial constraints”.

Up to 2 800 students have dropped out of courses at the University of Zimbabwe while 1 370 have dropped out or deferred their courses at the Great Zimbabwe University in Masvingo, Zinasu president, Alastair Pfunye, said in a statement this week.

According to a copy of his speech, Tsvangirai told students at the University of Zimbabwe on Tuesday, “I know many students across the country have dropped out, even though affordable education was one of the country’s prime achievements after independence.

“I am also aware that most female students have resorted to prostitution and other immoral means to survive,” he added.

This appeared to be a reference to reports that some students engage in transactional sex with often older, wealthier partners in order to make ends meet.

Fees for institutions of higher education in Zimbabwe are generally lower than in neighbouring South Africa. The state-run National University of Science and Technology charges around $800 per semester for some courses. Private universities such as Solusi and Africa University charge around $1 300 to $1,500 per semester, depending on the course.

Pfunye said President Robert Mugabe’s “clear lack of will to pay attention to education and students, or rather incapacity to do so has led to the deterioration of our academic standards as a nation”.