IF there is one thing Zimbabwe was well known for, it was our education system. We took pride in how well educated our students were, how they thrived and performed in institutions outside the country. With an impressive literacy rate of over 90% by the 1990s, it was well-placed pride.
That high standing has been severely eroded in the past two decades. Our once envied education system has not survived unscathed from years of hyperinflation, economic instability and political struggles.
High school pupils who sat for O Level Zimbabwe School Examination Council (Zimsec) got their results almost three months after their counterparts received their Cambridge GCE results.
Although the 2021 pass rate was higher than 2020’s at 26,34%, it still falls short of 2019’s pass rate of 31,6%. Whilst the results of the past two years can be attributed to the disruption in teaching due to Covid-19, is it entirely true to place all the blame on the pandemic and lockdown?
There have been disruptions to the school calendar in the past, from teacher’s strikes and go-slows due to poor salaries and lack of resources necessary to teach.
Much has been made of the failures of Zimbabwe’s primary and secondary education programmes, especially in government-run schools.
But what of our tertiary institutions? They too were once reputable. Starting with the University of Zimbabwe in 1952, to more recent additions, such as, the Marondera University of Agricultural Science and Technology in 2017, there are currently over 20 universities in Zimbabwe, not counting teachers colleges and vocational training centres.
There are some aspects of our tertiary education system that are unique to Zimbabwe. Each of these universities have the same Chancellor, President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Instead of a graduation season, where different ceremonies are held over a few days, there is one graduation day where everyone graduates at once. These characteristics are neither good nor bad, but they are the starting point to two larger questions: What is the current state of academia in Zimbabwe, and what is the importance of academic work and research to a country’s economy and development?
The answer to the first question is both simple and complex. There is consensus that our universities are in need of reform. The recently introduced Amendment of State Universities Statutes Bill seeks to “amend 13 University Acts in an effort to align them to the Constitution and to bring uniformity among all the University Acts.”
The 13 universities in question are: Zimbabwe Open University, Pan African Minerals University of Science and Technology, Midlands State University (MSU), Marondera University of Agricultural Sciences, Manicaland State University of Applied Sciences, Lupane State University, Bindura University, Chinhoyi University of Technology (CUT), Gwanda University, Harare Institute of Technology (HIT), Zimbabwe National Defence University, Masvingo State University and the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) and the National University of Science and Technology (Nust).
The Bill seeks to reduce the number of University Council members and include people appointed by the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education. It also aims to make disciplinary processes more efficient and uniform across institutions and give the Ministry the authority to appoint senior officers.
Whilst some of these amendments, if done properly, can benefit university management, administration and students, however, as Veritas highlighted in an analysis of the proposed Bill, there is no mention of academic freedom.
This omission could have a negative effect on the autonomy of universities and the ability of researchers and lecturers to do their work.
Panashe Mache is one of these academics. She is part of the Social Sciences Faculty at MSU, having studied a postgraduate degree in development in South Africa.
For her, being an academic in Zimbabwe has largely been positive.
“Government has underscored the importance of research, especially with the adoption of the Education 5.0 Curriculum,” Mache said.
“From an individual view point, I have been making major strides in that regard. So far I have two papers currently under review by certain journals.
“But issues around time and tight teaching schedules act in the way of most lecturers’ ability to channel adequate time to do empirical research.
“The outbreak of Covid-19 has further affected the extent to which lecturers as researchers can actually do empirical research resulting in cases where data is fabricated and thereby compromising the quality of their research output and the body of knowledge in their respective disciplines,” she added.
The disruption in teaching and lockdown also heavily affected university students and researchers. Students on the cusp of graduating were forced to stay at home and wait, without an immediate plan to provide online teaching.
When universities were able to start conducting online lectures and uploading assignments, there was the added hurdle of a lack of resources: Students without laptops struggled to keep up with the workload and access learning materials.
Then there is the issue of financial and technical support. For Mache, these are the biggest problem areas. As she explains:
“Support systems are literally dead in universities in Zimbabwe. Lecturers often express their desire to have various systems being in place to support them, not only financially, but in non-monetary terms also but management is not forthcoming.
“This often results in high cases of moonlighting and which also compromises teaching and research.”
Not only do lecturers struggle with the lack of administrative support, financial constraints also present a big hurdle in the road to research.
Inadequate funding for research projects can limit the ability of individual researchers and teams to complete their work in a satisfactory manner.
Why is this important?
After all, the world of academia can often look remote and isolated from everyday life. The reality is that higher education can contribute significantly to a country’s economy and development programmes.
A report by the Universities Alliance in the United Kingdom showed that the higher education sector generated over £73 billion (US$92,88 billion), with universities generating £86,6 million (US$110,81 billion) in IP revenue.
Investing in spaces such as innovation hubs and research outputs will translate to economic benefits.
Some institutions have started to pursue this route.
Nust opened its Innovation Hub, which strives to be “a catalyst for the economic and social advancement of the Zimbabwean society by stimulating economic growth, modernisation, and resultant prosperity through the exploitation of research outputs and innovative ideas that are generated at the University.”
It joins research centres and hubs in five other universities. The establishment of these spaces is a good sign that the government is starting to take investment into the potential of academic work.
As Mache puts it: “Academia plays a key role in the development trajectory of any democratic developmental state. Availability of adequate support not just to academics but research institutions such as universities by government could go a long way in enabling these to avail the requisite objective, scientific and empirical research, which I believe is a key ingredient for evidence-informed decision and policy making”.
However, does this go far enough to support the people working in our institutions of higher learning?
And were the amendment of State Universities Statutes Bill to become an official act, what will that mean for the self-governance of Zimbabwe’s tertiary institutions?
- Muzenda is a writer and analyst.These weekly articles published in the Zimbabwe Independent are coordinated by Lovemore Kadenge, an independent consultant, past president of the Zimbabwe Economics Society and past president of the Chartered Governance & Accountancy Institute in Zimbabwe (CGI Zimbabwe). — firstname.lastname@example.org or mobile: +263 772 382 852.