opinionBy Elias Mambo
ZIMBABWE'S education system was once among the best in Africa -- with the country at one time having the highest literacy rate on the continent before dropping to number two after Tunisia -- but now standards are declining due to a combination of factors.
Some of the reasons why Zimbabwe's education system is deteriorating include economic and funding problems, dumbing down of learning and examination standards, mushrooming of poor private schools and colleges, growing number of low-class universities, lack of commitment by teachers and students and corruption in terms of entrance requirements, studies and examinations.
The country's education system consists of seven years of primary school, four years of secondary and two years of high school before students can enter colleges and universities. Before starting school, children go to kindergarten and pre-school.
When the country gained independence in 1980, the new government introduced a policy of free education in a bid to educate the majority of the population sidelined through colonial discrimination and inequalities.
Education was declared a basic human right in Zimbabwe and a non-racial system was pursued, allowing black students to enter formerly whites-only schools. After inheriting a good education system base and infrastructure at all levels, the new government expanded the facilities to offer mainly poor students an opportunity to get at least basic education.
Many children from poor backgrounds got a chance to learn and rescue themselves from poverty.
However, since the late 1980s, government steadily introduced or increased school fees and other demands making it increasingly difficult for poor children to get education.
Apart from school fees, students started paying charges like development levies.
The situation got worse at the beginning of 1991 when government adopted austerity measures under the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme, which encouraged reducing the budget deficit and ensuring a leaner government. Subsidies on many things, including education, were removed.
When the economic meltdown set in after 2000, the situation got worse. Schools and colleges started losing teachers and lecturers while students dropped out en masse.
Besides the economic crisis and funding problems, there were problems of localising examinations which led to corruption and cheating through the opening and selling of exam papers, deterioration of learning and examination standards and mushrooming of private schools, colleges and universities offering poor quality education.
Although the political turmoil and economic collapse made headlines worldwide over the past 12 years, the decline of the country's once well-regarded education system has largely been ignored. owered academic standards, traceable to the mid-1990s, have unfortunately coincided with the growth of a knowledge-based economy requiring workers with higher levels of qualifications. This poses a challenge for Zimbabwe.
Since government scrapped the Zimbabwe Junior Certificate exams and localised 'O' and 'A' Level examinations in the mid-1990s, education standards have been plummeting.
Education departments have been lowering basic entry requirements to enrol more students, while there is a perception that exams have become easier, resulting in lower quality graduates.
Decaying infrastructure and onslaught on schools and tertiary institutions' autonomy through undue political interference have had a telling effect on the quality of the country's education, which needs a major policy shift and robust funding in order to get back on the rails.
At the height of the country's socio-economic crisis, Zimbabwe lost the entire 2007 and part of the 2008 academic years as teachers and lecturers concentrated on meeting basic survival needs through alternative means. Unicef asserts 94% of rural schools, serving the majority of the population, were closed by 2009, with attendance plunging from over 80% to 20%.
Years of serious underfunding have forced the country's tertiary institutions to operate under the principles of economic rationalism, rather than principles of education. In colleges and universities, students quality is secondary to ability to pay.
Naturally, Zimbabweans are deeply concerned about declining academic standards at all levels of education and have questioned preferential college and university admissions and relaxed standards of curriculum, teaching, grading and marking.
Education minister David Coltart places the decline in quality of education on government's misplaced priorities.
"Zimbabwe's investment in education has drastically declined in the past two decades due to misplaced priorities and the sector still remains in a state of crisis," Coltart said. "The inclusive government is spending three times more money on globetrotting compared to education and this has compromised the quality of education."
Private colleges have mushroomed across the country's urban areas as proprietors seek to make a quick buck, raising fears that the colleges, once frequented by those who had initially failed their public exams, were compromising education standards. But Coltart dismissed the fears, saying the advent of private institutions had not compromised the quality of education because students still write the same examinations.
"It is the funding that is needed to maintain our standards," he said.
However, Coltart's view was contradicted by remarks carried in a state-run daily this week in which Zimbabwe Schools Examinations Council (Zimsec) public relations manager Ezekiel Pasipamire said they had withheld 'O' Level results for a private college in order to maintain quality.
"To maintain the credibility of our examination system, Zimsec has adopted a zero tolerance to malpractices particularly by private centres," said Pasipamire. "Those are the ones that give us a headache every time there are examinations by not adhering to the standard examination procedures."
Pasipamire warned Zimsec would de-register such centres to maintain good examination standards.
Zimbabwean academic Brian Raftopoulos, a senior research mentor at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, said the country's education system continues to decline in the wake of insufficient efforts from the coalition government to resuscitate it.
"After 2000, in the context of the more general political crisis, a whole series of highly-politicised problems emerged in the educational sphere," said Raftopoulos.
"These problems have centred around the disciplining of teachers for their support for the MDC, the militarisation of youth centres, politicisation of the university entrance system as well as the struggle over the curriculum -- in particular the teaching of history," he said.
There is also a problem of political interference where army commanders, ministers, politicians and other influential people now enter colleges and universities through the back door, compromising standards.
Former University of Zimbabwe vice-chancellor Graham Hill was forced to resign in 2002 following revelations he had facilitated the enrolment of Zanu PF Manicaland governor Chris Mushowe for a post-graduate programme in 1995 when he did not qualify.
The localisation of setting and marking of exams caused serious leakages of exam papers, mix-ups and errors in question papers and certificates.
The late Edmund Garwe resigned as Education minister in 1996 after his daughter was found in possession of exam papers she had accessed after he had taken them home.
However, University of Zimbabwe (UZ) vice-chancellor Levi Nyagura, widely criticised for presiding over the UZ's decline, is optimistic the education system would return to its former glory. The UZ has now been enrolling students who do not have 'A' Level English, but have 15 points with passes in subjects like Shona, Ndebele, Divinity and Geography.
"Zimbabwe's education is on the rise again and we want to safeguard society by providing quality students who will be effective in industry," said Nyagura.
"At this institution, we aim to bring back our former glory and for the first time, we have enrolled female law students with 14 points and have As in 'O' Level English, as well as 61 first-year female faculty of medicine students."
Higher and Tertiary Education minister Stan Mudenge said the quality of education remained high despite years of deterioration.
"We are now number two in Africa according to UN literacy levels and we want to maintain those high levels," said Mudenge.
The survey shows Zimbabwe has a 92% literacy rate while Tunisia tops with 98%, although the reality is that the quality of the education system has been compromised.