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A year after the departure of Zimbabwe’s former president Robert Mugabe after 37 years in power, opinion is divided on how much progress the new government under Emmerson Mnangagwa has made in reforming the country’s struggling higher education sector.
Chairperson of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Higher Education Daniel Molokele said there had been no significant changes in the sector as political interference in the running of higher education, corruption and chronic underfunding has continued under the country’s new leader.
“I would say there haven’t been any significant changes to differentiate between the previous and the present era. So we still need more time to see those promised changes, but one thing that I can clearly see is that in terms of budgeting, in terms of prioritising the higher education ministry, there is still a challenge. The ministry asked for a budget of US$900 million something in the national budget; it got a budget of US$380 million. So we are still underfunding higher education.”
After coming to power, Mnangagwa introduced the Transitional Stabilisation Programme aimed at reinvigorating higher education and ensuring the system is relevant to the labour market. In March the government held a Higher and Tertiary Education Infrastructure Investment conference at which investors committed US$1.5 billion. The government is also working on establishing university towns and has pledged to set aside 1% of the country’s gross domestic product for research.
However, Molokele, who is a former student leader at the University of Zimbabwe, argues that institutional governance systems are still a problem, with university councils filled with political appointees who do not have real influence.
Furthermore, the current situation, where the state president is also the chancellor of every state-run institution of higher learning, has been a recipe for disaster.
“Universities need less political influence and more emphasis on academic freedom,” he said.
“There is corruption in the administration of most institutions of higher learning. The vice-chancellors have a lot of power and they need to be more accountable,” he said.
Earlier this year, the vice-chancellor of the University of Zimbabwe (UZ), Professor Levi Nyagura, was suspended over the awarding of a Doctor of Philosophy degree in 2014 to the former first lady Grace Mugabe under controversial circumstances, and after lecturers from the department of sociology submitted a petition to the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission calling for the PhD to be revoked and nullified.
“We need to see more autonomy and independence in institutions of higher learning. We know that the University of Zimbabwe Amendment Act of 1990 changed the vice-chancellor from the chief academic to a chief disciplinarian and that trend then affected all the other universities run by the state. We need to see more academic freedom in Zimbabwe,” said Molekele.
Students ‘learn in fear’
Concerns have also been raised by students. In a position paperreleased in November, the Zimbabwe National Students Union (ZINASU) said under Mnangagwa students’ rights continue to be trampled upon and universities continue to arbitrarily suspend students.
The union said students learn in fear as their freedoms of association, and right to information and assembly, are not respected due to draconian colonial legislation which has been redefined by the current regime as institutional ordinances that seek to give unprecedented power to university authorities to expel and suspend students.
“Many UZ students are still serving their suspensions after the college executed the ordinance 31 to suspend them,” the statement said.
The statement said that after the Zimbabwe Ezekiel Guti University demonstration in Bindura, 50 students were suspended without a disciplinary hearing, which the union successfully challenged. There was also the National University of Science and Technology demonstration, where seven students were detained only for questioning the administration.
Soaring cost of living
ZINASU said Mnangagwa has failed to make higher education accessible as pledged by his administration as the cost of living soars.
In recent months, there has been a jump in prices of goods and services with some service providers demanding payment in foreign currency even though the majority of citizens are paid in local Zimbabwe bond notes.
The jump in prices resulted in year-on-year inflation rising to 20.85% for the month of October from 5.39% in September.
ZINASU said the current fee structure is unmanageable for many students who come from struggling backgrounds.
“These challenges have a strong bearing on the education of our students. If the economic situation continues to deteriorate, students will be forced to discontinue their studies,” it said.
President of the College Lecturers Association of Zimbabwe David Dzatsunga confirmed that the economic situation is becoming dire, resulting in a lack of resources and equipment for use by students and lecturers.
“The economic situation is dire and generally students are struggling to purchase the required materials. Student welfare is not at its best and that creates downstream problems,” he said.
Dzatsunga said the new administration announced austerity measures in the national budget in November that are being implemented without consultation, worsening the situation for lecturers.
For example, the government has said that duty on imported cars must now be paid in United States dollars even though workers are being paid in Zimbabwe bond notes.
“The austerity measures have the effect of eroding our salaries and we may end up earning the equivalent of US$110 … The conditions of service are deteriorating,” he said.
Dzatsunga said while government had introduced a new curriculum in schools, teacher training colleges had not reviewed their own curriculum.
“This means that teachers are being taught the old curriculum to go and teach the new curriculum,” he said.
‘More needs to be done’
Zimbabwean academic Dr Admire Mare, a senior lecturer at Namibia University of Science and Technology, said the new minister in the post-Mugabe era – Professor Amon Murwira – has tried his best to improve the situation. However, he said, more needs to be done.
“I think the current minister of higher and tertiary education, science and technology development is trying his best to put our universities back on the global map after years of infrastructural decay and lowering of academic standards.
“The replacement of Levi Nyagura [as University of Zimbabwe vice-chancellor] is also a step in the right direction because academics were being denied the opportunity to attend conferences and engage in forward thinking conversations with their peers,” said Mare.
He said while these are important steps, there is still a need to ensure academic standards in teaching, research and community development are strengthened.
“Academics ought to be incentivised to publish in authentic peer-reviewed journals and this can be done through a Zimbabwe national research fund or foundation which helps the ministry with disbursing research funds to active researchers. There is also a need to ensure that technological hubs become part of the academic ecosystem so that research and development are connected,” said Mare.
Originally published at http://www.universityworldnews.com