ZIMBABWE: Universities forced to slash forex fees

Zimbabwean universities have been forced to reduce their foreign currency-denominated fees following crippling student demonstrations that resulted in the country's biggest and oldest institution, the University of Zimbabwe, being shut down. Universities were charging fees ranging from US$700 to US$1,500 per semester, starting in January, following the 'dollarisation' of the economy to escape the devastating effects of world record inflation.

Addressing a press conference this week, Minister of Tertiary and Higher Education Stan Mudenge said cabinet had arrived at a new fee structure following consultations with stakeholders.

Mudenge said no student must be turned way from college after failing to raise the required amounts. Students who cannot afford to pay must attend university - the government will pay for poor students, but as graduates they must work for the state for the same number of years they spend in higher education.

Since its inception the inclusive government in Zimbabwe, with long time ruler Robert Mugabe as President and former opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai as Prime Minister, has adopted some populist policies - such as ordering the state electricity firm ZESA not to disconnect power to defaulting customers as government wants to reduce power charges.

The new higher education fee structure came after Mudenge met vice-chancellors of all state universities in Harare, where he expressed dissatisfaction at astronomical fees universities were demanding from students.

He queried why local universities were demanding more than US$1,000 while universities in neighbouring countries charged less. He alleged that students at South Africa's Fort Hare University paid US$200 per semester.

The Higher Education Minister said hard sciences and engineering students at universities would be expected to pay US$350 instead of US$1,200, while medicine and veterinary science students would pay US$400 per semester instead of US$1,600. Trainee teachers would pay US$150 instead of the US$500 that higher education institutions were demanding.

Students at polytechnics would now be charged US$150 for a national certificate, down from US$500, and US$200 for a national diploma, down from US$600 for a higher national diploma. He added that fees for students studying for a bachelor of technology degree at a polytechnic had been reduced from US$1,200 to US$350.

"Having said that I would like to say the fees are still reasonably high...It remains a position of government that if these fees shall be found burdensome by some students, my ministry will pay and no student should be sent away because he or she did not pay," Mudenga said.

Besides paying in US dollars, students can also pay the equivalent in Euros, British pounds or South African rands. Mudenge said payment in foreign currency was meant to revive institutions still reeling from a lecturer strike that lasted almost all of last year.

News of the new fees structure prompted the University of Zimbabwe, which was supposed to open at the end of April following its closure last month, to announce that it would now open earlier on 30 March.

It said in a statement that residence fees would be pegged at US$400. The statement added that at some residences, students may find their rooms locked due to water shortages. Zimbabwe is in the throes of a crippling cholera epidemic that has claimed nearly 4,000 lives due to the state's failure to supply clean water. The university would not compromise the health or welfare of students staying in halls of residences, the university said.

The Zimbabwe national Students Union (Zinasu). which called for the demonstrations against the foreign currency fees, said last week that they were still unaffordable.

Union spokesman Blessing Vava urged students to ignore the new fees, and called on universities to revise the amounts further downwards as they were still out of reach of most students.

"We reaffirm our position that we will not pay any fees in foreign currency and still maintain that it is the responsibility of the government to fund education. The union urges students to report to college when it reopens its doors on 30 March 2009 even if they do not have the money to pay fees."

Students at Bindura University of Science and Technology staged demonstrations on campus in protest against the new fee structure on Wednesday. Three students - Respect Ndanga, Innocent Kapoya and Kelvin Veremu - were arrested.

Vava said Zinasu would engage the government on the matter of reducing fees.