Zimbabwe: Is Sending Students Abroad the Answer?

14 October 2019
opinion

Since Independence Zimbabwe has been sending students for further studies abroad, and the country continues to do so amid reservations from some citizens, who decry the rationale of such an ambitious programme.

The issue of continued sending of students to the Diaspora through Government's support, especially in the face of economic challenges that the Motherland is reeling under, remains as contentious as the essence of what constitutes education, particularly when acquisition of university degrees has become commonplace. Due to loss of confidence in the local higher education system, parents are sacrificing their hard-earned incomes to send their children abroad for studies. Indications on the ground, however, do not complement the number of higher degrees that the country boasts of.

There is a persistent gap between knowledge purportedly acquired through book learning, and the skills required to drive the economy for the common good of citizens.

Speaking at the official opening of the Local and International Benchmarking of the Zimbabwe Minimum Bodies of Knowledge and Skills Workshop at Midlands State University (MSU) on July 22, 2019, Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development Minister Professor Amon Murwira pointed out that for the country's education system to work, there was need to forge a balance between knowledge and skills.

Said the minister: "The results of our National Critical Skills Audit showed that although the national literacy rate is 94 percent, the national skills levels are at 38 percent. Remember: production of goods and services can only happen when there is both knowledge and skill. Knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice."

In May last year Prof Murwira revealed that Government had completed the National Skills Audit and crafting of the National Qualifications Framework (NFQ) with the view to overhaul curricula framework for universities, teachers' colleges and polytechnics. The country last conducted a skills audit in 1984, whose recommendations have now been outdated and overtaken by developments, especially in technological terms.

Because of lack of constant audits in curricula, not only in tertiary institutions, but at primary and secondary levels as well, the gap between knowledge and skills widened. The design and philosophy that the curricula hinged on was inherited from colonial governments, where emphasis was on the creation of employees and consumers of goods and services, and not creators.

The Education 3.0 design in effect all along was premised on teaching, research and community engagement, thus, the need to shift to Education 5.0 anchored on teaching, research, community engagement, innovation and industrialisation, inspired by a novel heritage-based philosophy envisioned to culminate in the creation of goods and services.

It is against this backdrop that the issue of sending Zimbabweans abroad may be scrutinised, possibly to give insights into other possibilities. It has been argued that Government and the corporate world should pool resources and continue on the trajectory of sending our students abroad, as this is anticipated to be effective in pulling our burdened economy out of the quagmire it is trapped in.

True, the country is saddled with a dearth in skilled personnel like surveyors, doctors, engineers and actuarial scientists, among others, whose skills may be honed in other countries. Take the example of China, which has in excess of 400 000 students abroad, is often cited in support of the need to send our young compatriots to the Diaspora.

Indeed, gentle citizen, fellow countryman and dear friend, it is true; we are incapacitated to offer all the necessary skills that our Motherland desperately needs. It may not be about lack of confidence in our education system; that also may be true, for we live in a global village where cultural interaction should be norm.

However, as valid as all that and more may be, it is my humble submission that a closer look at the parameters on the ground reveals that there is more than what meets the eye regarding scholarships in support of students studying at universities abroad when there are universities here.

The majority of our students go to South Africa, where they are known to outperform locals there, because of their industriousness and ingenuity, which ironically they do not acquire there. South African universities, Chinese universities, and, indeed, any other institutions of repute out there, are well-equipped, you may argue; and that also is a stubborn fact. But herein lies the crux of the matter: Why are our universities lagging behind?

Facts are obstinately stubborn, sure they are. The University of Zimbabwe, our flagship institution, has been in existence since 1952, and still uses obsolete equipment in most of its key faculties like Medicine, Engineering and Surveying.

It is befuddling why the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Zimbabwe (ICAZ) partners with the University of South Africa (Unisa) in the training of its members, instead of engaging UZ, the National University of Science and Technology (NUST), or Midlands State University (MSU).

A valid question perseveres: Do we really have confidence in our institutions? Unisa, unlike UZ or NUST, is a distance education institution, offering a wide range of courses across the globe with well-established infrastructure that meets the prevailing trends in higher and tertiary education.

So when did the rain start beating us?

Our tertiary institutions need to be funded. Institutions like UZ, NUST and MSU should be able to take a leading role in self-sustainability, and there is nothing that can stop them.

The idea of having universities all over the place, churning out half-baked graduates who cannot tell six from nine, is a hard sell.

If resources are directed towards key areas where skills are lacking, it will go a long way in mitigating our problems. Priorities should be set right. And if truth be told, even our politicians do not seem to have faith in our institutions, as their children are conspicuous by their absence at them.

With 6 977 students graduating from the MSU alone, 989 of them with Master's degrees this year in an economy that has lost more than 4 000 companies to closures since 2011, it may be stretching the imagination too far to assume that sending thousands of our learners abroad would mitigate our situation.

Because they are trained to work and not to produce, the majority of graduates from the country's 20 universities are likely to become redundant because the employment space is shrinking.

After seeking opportunities created by others and failing to get them, they will be no better than high school graduates. There will be need for them to be "retested". Such is the nature of bookish knowledge.

Yes, we have a critical shortage of surveyors, an issue that was raised as aggravating to our land audit, but if sending thousands of our countrymen abroad were a panacea, why do we still have the same problem?

If we should continue sending them, we need to know what happened to those that we sent there. It does not need a rocket scientist to hazard the answer; you cannot send a soldier to train with weapons that he/she will not use on the battlefield.

We send our students to study Medicine, Engineering, Chemistry, Physics, Actuarial Science and the like, using advanced technology in the host countries, and we expect them to come back and use obsolete equipment in our hospitals, telecommunications, manufacturing and construction industries.

Failing to make an impact home, in their frustration they leave the country en masse to offer their services in the countries that make them useful, or they simply decide to remain there after completing their studies.

UZ has trained and continues to train world- class doctors notwithstanding the meagre resources the institution has to grapple with. Many Zimbabweans with higher education qualifications acquired abroad, with high hopes of making good starts for themselves and their country, have to endure the bursting of their bubbles the moment they touch down on home soil. They soon realise that their advanced skills are non-compliant with the equipment used in our institutions and manufacturing industry, or that their degrees are out of sync with our reality.

There is need to refocus, which is why Government's efforts through the Ministry of Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development, to advocate a heritage-based philosophy that speaks to our challenges through home-grown solutions, are laudable.

Instead of sending our students abroad, it is lecturers and professors who should be sent as they are key components in the knowledge-skills matrix.

Sending a single lecturer to an institution of repute will be equivalent to sending an entire faculty; and if his/her newly acquired skills are matched with modern equipment and infrastructure, then we will be closer to the Holy Grail.

There is even greater need for the corporate world to partner tertiary institutions as it stands to benefit more, since they know the kind of skills they lack in propelling industry forward. However, for all that to work, industry should invest in infrastructure that meets global technological trends.

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