ZIMBABWE: Desperate universities launch income projects

The Zimbabwean government last week cancelled the academic year as universities and schools found it impossible to continue operating with the collapse of the country's economy. At the University of Zimbabwe, the country leading tertiary institution, a notice on a faculty building told students lectures would begin "on a date to be advised". But university vice-chancellor Levy Nyagura was quoted as saying the university had no water, no electricity and no funds.

Meanwhile, public universities have launched income-generating projects aimed at augmenting dwindling funds provided by the government.

The intensification of income-generation follows a recommendation by legislators in their fourth report on the operations of state universities, presented in parliament earlier this year. The report, by members of the portfolio committee on education, sport and culture, strongly suggested that 'third stream' projects be introduced at all public universities.

Legislators said they concluded that universities needed to be "innovative and resourceful" in meeting some of operational costs themselves after realising that "university education was crumbling at a rate that has never been experienced in the history of this country".

Among the problems they discovered was prolonged absenteeism by lecturers because of poor salaries. Chinhoyi State University had only three computers for use by 3,500 students while at the National University of Science and Technology, construction of a library building started 10 years earlier had not reached roof level because of lack of funds.

At Lupane State University, the only higher education institution located in a rural area, the council has resolved that the university will be "agriculture-centred" and will concentrate mostly on agricultural studies and surveying on a commercial basis.

In an interview, the principal of Harare Polytechnic, Steven Raza, said his institution was working on a bio-diesel project and that students had successfully manufactured 'scotch carts' and mini-hydro electric generators for sale. The polytechnic also had a farming project and was conducting surveying and building on a commercial basis.

"We have adopted a strategic management system, a system that recognises dynamism," Raza said. "If you come to Harare Polytechnic, the main gate was built by our students. Some people want to have their houses painted; we go there and paint for a fee."

The University of Zimbabwe has a farm whose produce is sold mostly to staff at reduced prices, and some of the food is used at university residences.

Chinhoyi State University embarked on a massive agricultural project in conjunction with the Zimbabwe National Army. But two months ago, the university council wrote to the Higher Education Ministry saying a misunderstanding had arisen with soldiers and the authorities had to intervene.

In an interview with University World News, Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education Dr Stan Mudenge blamed the collapse of higher education on sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe by western countries in reaction to Mugabe's vote rigging and increasingly oppressive rule.

Mudenge said that apart from inflation - at 11.4 million percent, the highest in the world - rapidly eroding the value of university funding, some donors had also shied away from engaging local state institutions.

"It's not that we are not providing adequate funding. Some years back we met as African Education Ministers in Maseru and agreed that 30% of our budget should go to education. Some objected saying it was too high and they wanted 20%. In Zimbabwe it is 30% going to education, the highest in the region, so you can see that we are not to blame."

Mugabe - whose Zanu-PF party lost control of parliament to the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in March, for the first time since independence from Britain in 1980 - has said he will soon form a government of national unity with the MDC which will rescue the economy.

But students and lecturers interviewed by University World News cited deep-rooted mistrust of the aging despot and have little confidence in that arrangement.

In another interview last week, University of Zimbabwe economics lecturer Professor Tony Hawkins said the country's economy was not likely to improve as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank were reluctant to resume balance of payment support while Mugabe remained head of government.