2 December 2007

Zimbabwe: Education - 30 Years Backwards And Still Declining


TWENTY years ago, University of Zimbabwe students fought the administration and among themselves over the quality of education.

Today they fight for a chair, a plate of sadza, a textbook, a seat in a commuter omnibus, among other mundane objects.

Student leaders no longer confront the authorities on student issues.

Students go for days without a proper meal. Their fees are mostly higher than the average income parents can afford. There is an almost permanent accommodation shortage on campus.

There is an equally unending lecturers' exodus, shortage of books and learning equipment. Girls are reportedly turning to prostitution to make ends meet.

Former UZ Vice-Chancellor Professor Gordon Chavhunduka recalls with nostalgia how it was like "a fairy tale" at the same university.

"We had everything," he says. "The library was fully stocked with new publications from the most renowned publishing houses.

We had foreign lecturers as guests. Not now."

The standoff between the government, on the one hand, and Britain and the United States of America, on the other, saw a sharp decline in the number of foreign guest lecturers. Chavhunduka said politicians, such as Ian Smith, would hold discussions at the university with students.

"We would invite them regardless of their politician affiliation. The situation today is terrible. I am told there is a shortage of library books, and newly published books from outside the country are no longer available."

During his days, Chavhunduka says, student life was good. "The environment was most ideal for their interaction. I can say we have gone back to pre-independence standards."

Chavhunduka believes the standard of education is now worse than it was 30 years ago.

Students are destitute following the institution's refusal in July to re-open their halls of residence, effectively banning students from staying on campus.

Student leaders believe this was part of the administration's plan to "fix them" for their demonstrations over deteriorating standards.

The situation at all State universities -- Bindura, Chinhoyi, National University of Science and Technology (NUST) and Midlands State University -- is no better.

The president of the NUST Students Representative Council, Langton Muchembere said last week: "The current spate of victimization of student leaders in Zimbabwe by the tyranny of Robert Mugabe... is unacceptable."

Six NUST student leaders were recently suspended for "leading students' unrest".

Muchembere said the "current learning environment is not conducive". Among other things, he said "there is a chronic shortage" of lecturers, accommodation and transport.

Just before this year's NUST graduation ceremony, students petitioned Mugabe to urgently resolve their crisis.

"Thousands of students are expelled, suspended, arbitrarily arrested, detained, tortured or killed for demanding better education."

But the director of information and publicity at NUST, Felix Moyo said universities were not hospitality or finance institutions providing food, accommodation, and money for students.

He said most of the students' complaints were about their physical needs, not the core business of universities.

"We are in the academic industry to give tuition of world class quality. While certain things may look like they have gone down, I can vouch that we still have the best and most effective quality control measures," he said.

Lovemore Chinoputsa, UZ Student Executive Council (SEC) president, said Mugabe "should be ashamed of himself by capping students" who wrote exams without learning much.

"There should be 1200 lecturers at UZ but there are only 450, most of them pursuing their master's programmes," said Chinoputsa.

At Chinhoyi University, Ngonidzashe Muusha, a student leader, said: "All students, undergraduate and postgraduate, are being treated like Grade One pupils."

The academia shares Chavhunduka's sentiments: universities are churning out "half baked graduates".

The former chairperson of Chinhoyi University of Technology (CUT), Dr Ibbo Mandaza, said the standards have "declined tremendously".

"We have a serious problem, I have no doubt about that," said Mandaza. "As in every other sector, we currently have a serious capacity problem. Most of our skilled personnel have left the country, and this is impacting negatively on the quality of education at our institutions."

MDC shadow Minister of Education, Fidelis Mhashu, described the situation at the country's universities as "deplorable".

He accused government of being reluctant to address the crisis in state universities. Instead, Mhashu said, students who air their grievances are victimized.

"Even up to now they have not started renovating the halls of residence at the UZ. When students complain they are labelled anti-government and members of the opposition. They are either fired or suspended from the institution," said Mhashu, who chairs a parliamentary committee on education.

The committee, which met student leaders last week, will tour universities across the country to assess the situation.

Efforts to get a comment from the Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education Stan Mudenge and the Association of University Teachers (AUT) were fruitless.

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