ZIMBABWE: Universities still closed as students arrested

Four student leaders were arrested last week for leading a protest of nearly 500 students against the collapse of higher education in Zimbabwe. No state universities are operating in the new academic year because of serious problems including a lecturer strike, lack of finance and unavailability of learning materials.

The four arrested students included Clever Bere, President of the Zimbabwe National Students Union (Zinasu). Students marched on parliament last Tuesday to present grievances and, as Bere told University World News, possible solutions to the Speaker of the House of Assembly, Lovemore Moyo. But the presentation was foiled by the police.

Moyo, National Chair of the Movement for Democratic Change, is the first parliamentary speaker since Zimbabwe's independence in 1980 who does not belong to President Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF party. Zanu-PF lost control of the legislature in general elections held in March.

The student leaders were released the same day but ordered to report to the police station the following day to have their statements recorded. Bere said that rather than returning, the arrested students would wait for things to "cool down".

Last month, all state run institutions except Bindura State University failed to reopen because of funding problems caused by an economic crisis that has seen inflation reach 231 million percent - the world's highest. Last week, academic and non-academic staff at Bindura joined the strike, leaving no public institutions of higher education operating.

A copy of the petition students wanted to present to the parliamentary speaker, obtained by University World News, says: "The Zimbabwe National Students Union notes with great concern the continued deterioration in the country's education sector, with negligible effort placed to abate further deterioration."

Students, it said, were most distressed. The petition raised a range of issues including the accessibility of education and erosion of academic freedoms. Universities lacked autonomy, as evidenced by the appointment of vice-chancellors and principals, and members of senates and councils, by one person - Mugabe.

"Students are deeply concerned about the form and substance of their curriculum. They get a rude awakening when they go for attachment, as they realise that what they had been taught is no longer applicable in the modern world, thus the curriculum needs to be reviewed and updated so that it is in line with current trends in the employment sector," the petition said, adding that in some colleges students were using course outlines and notes from the 1980s.

Students and staff, the petition continued, endured sanitation hazards because of broken toilets and non-availability of water. Infrastructure at all state institutions was dilapidated through lack of maintenance and repair in recent years - including libraries, lecture rooms and offices - and halls of residence had become unsuitable for human habitation. Colleges were failing to provide decent meals to resident students because they did not have sufficient money; it was difficult for students "to concentrate whilst hungry".

By mid-October, said the petition, Zimbabwe's universities had still to open two months after the initial opening day, with most of them having to postpone their openings at least three times. Some schools had had to close because of teacher shortages while lecturers and teachers had either been on strike or on go-slow, "therefore there is no learning in progress".

As a way forward, the students demanded government grants for students, the opening of all universities and release of examination results at the University of Zimbabwe, in Harare.

Politically, the students called for a people-driven constitution-making process leading to a new constitution where the right to education would be enshrined, immediate implementation of strategies to resuscitate the national economy, readmission of students who had been expelled or suspended by institutions due to political activism, and repeal of laws restricting academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

The students also demanded urgent resolution of the political impasse that has seen Mugabe and MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai fail to form an inclusive government as per a political agreement reached on 15 September under the mediation of former South African president Thabo Mbeki. The impasse was a result of the aging dictator's move to grab all the key cabinet ministries, the students said.