UZ heyday now distant memory

“OH how beautiful life was at the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) during our time,” reminisces 45-year-old Charity Ncube with a beaming smile. “It was indeed a privilege to be part of the then prestigious UZ.”

Hazel Ndebele

Ncube, now a top executive at a Harare bank, is one of the “old skool” UZ students whose tuition fees and personal finances were taken care of by the government in the 1990s. This was done through student loans and grants that more than sustained their university life.

Government had a system in place whereby it offered students money which at some point comprised a 75% grant and 25% loan for the 15 weeks of the semester.

The grants and loans catered for tuition fees, medical aid, student union fees which entitled the student to certain privileges on campus, library fees, accommodation, meals as well as personal expenses during their years of study. Consequently, even students from the poorest families hailing from the remotest corners of the country could successfully complete their studies at the university without financial worries.

“It was such a charmed life where upon completion of studies, we were only required to repay the 25% loan. In my case I did not even repay that money as runaway inflation quickly rendered the Zimbabwe dollar and with the loan worthless,” said Ncube.

The idea of loans and grants system was to create a revolving fund which would also benefit future students, but the brain drain and economic crisis meant many students left the country for perceived greener pastures without repaying a cent. Government debt collectors could do little to recover the money.

Sadly the “utopian” days of payouts and frequent trips by students to the nearby fast food outlets for pizza and other treats, and the purchase of basics such as radios and TV and even pay fees for their siblings, while still on campus, are now merely fond but distant memories. It has been buried under an avalanche of stubborn hostile conditions affecting Zimbabweans, including students, chief among them the economic meltdown that has vice-gripped the nation for well over a decade and counting.

Now cash-strapped students no longer access the same funding, with Ncube’s generation partly to blame for reneging on their obligations to repay the loans. Government should also shoulder responsibility for its failure to properly manage the noble programme which levelled the education playing field for students.

Government’s failure to provide university students with funding is taking a serious toll on students, especially those from poor backgrounds, with the situation deteriorating in sync with the ailing economy.

Last week the Zimbabwe Independent reported that the UZ had evicted more than 2 500 students for failure to pay tuition fees. The fees for undergraduates range from US$1 000 to US$2 000 per year depending on the course of study.

The institution no longer offers payment plans in instalments for students who cannot pay in full fees at once, leaving thousands stranded. Moreover, government no longer offers a cadetship scheme where it would pay fees for students at state universities and in return they would be bonded through having to work in the country for a specified number of years.

Ncube describes how the system of loans and grants was a brilliant initiative, especially for students who came from poor backgrounds as there was never a situation whereby students would drop out or defer studies due to lack of funds.

“The grant was more than enough to sustain you during the study years; those who stayed outside campus were given extra cash to cover their accommodation expenses such that students where never desperate,” she says.

“Memories of university life for all those in my age group are pleasant ones because education was affordable for all and government made sure it was accessible for even the poorest child. It was much easier to secure a well-paying job then. Unfortunately this has long ceased to be the case and the UZ is crumbling.”

Another former UZ student Luckmore Nhau (42) who studied for the Bachelor of Arts General said he managed to use his grant savings to buy furniture and even pay school fees for his siblings who were then at primary school.

“We saved enough to board luxury coaches back home, such as the once famous Blue Arrow, or even fly with Air Zimbabwe to Bulawayo. The money was enough for one to make savings and never live from hand to mouth,” says Nhau.

Today, inability to pay tuition is one of the major issues among numerous other problems which students at the UZ and other state universities in the country are facing.

The swingeing economic hardships the country is facing is making student life for many nightmarish. There is increasing infrastructural decay, particularly at the once revered UZ which has faced severe water problems, poor meals and decaying infrastructure.

As accommodation is scarce at state universities, students are often forced to share a single room to save money where they lodge outside campus.

But the greatest concern for students is the economic crisis which has seen the job market severely shrink amid company closures and retrenchments.

With unemployment rate at more than 80%, many graduates have been condemned to eking out a living in the country’s burgeoning informal sector and outside the country as economic refugees.

Zimbabwe National Students Union president Gilbert Mutubuki said: “Accommodation issues emanate from serious lack of infrastructure capacity that has been gripping our higher institutions of learning for a very long time.”

He said students are being overcharged on rentals and are forced to live like mice to save money.

“Most of the students are sons and daughters of poor peasants and civil servants facing economic challenges due to failure of the current regime led by President Robert Mugabe.

Education is a right according to our constitution, therefore it is the duty of government to adequately fund education and provide grants which will see students having decent accommodation, meals and study material,” says Mutubuki.

The 2015 national budget presented by Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa provided US$6 million for the Presidential Scholarship Programme which serves the well-connected, but only US$1 million for the cadetship scheme for local university students. Economist Takunda Mugaga said: “It is hurtful that most of those who study under the presidential scholarship are the true sources of brain drain as few of these beneficiaries return to work at home.”

The majority of children of political bigwigs study abroad after high school, a clear indication they have little confidence in local tertiary institutions despite frequently bragging about the country’s achievement in the education sector since Independence.