ZIMBABWE: Students disappointed in new government

Zimbabwe's inclusive government will be two months old this month but students are failing to find comfort in the fact. They protest that students continue to be expelled, brutalised and arrested - and complain their plight is being ignored by the new prime minister.

The oppressive policies pursued by President Robert Mugabe and his formerly ruling and now power-sharing Zanu-PF party led students to align with the opposition movement in an arrangement in which they were treated as equal partners. Now students are concerned the inclusive government is sidelining tertiary education.

In a letter to the independent weekly newspaper The Standard, University of Zimbabwe student Khethimani Mulenga wrote: "Countless student activists sacrificed their university studies and lives [for] the future of our country. Up to now, students who fought fearlessly for change find deplorable prison cells have become their halls of residence and their role in bringing to an end Zanu-PF's political hegemony has been conveniently forgotten."

To former opposition leader and now Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, Mulenga said: "I want to make it clear that we will not allow the euphoria of a new dispensation to cloud our critical senses. What your administration has done during the past month is to sow the seeds of animosity and mistrust between the government and students."

The Zimbabwe National Students Union (Zinasu) described ongoing victimisation at several institutions following a decision by universities to charge fees in foreign currency, or forex.
The Zimbabwean dollar collapsed after years of economic mismanagement by Mugabe. Unemployment stands at 95% and parents, reeling from a 10-year economic crisis, are failing to raise the requisite US dollars.

The union said student leaders at the National University of Science and Technology had been banned from campus after leading protests against the fees decision. Some lectures were being conducted in nearly empty classes as many students who had failed to raise the required fees had been prevented from attending, the union said.

At Bindura University of Science and Technology, demonstrations against the forex fees saw three students arrested. Zinasu said the university was illegally barring students who had not paid fees from lecturers, and that security personnel were manning the gates demanding proof of payment receipts.

In his letter, Mulenga said two students at Midlands State University had been suspended in violation of the Prime Minister's call at a recent rally that such "abuse of power must end immediately". He added that three students had also been arrested at the University of Zimbabwe on "trumped-up charges".

Zinasu national secretary for information and publicity, Blessing Vava, said despite a recent announcement by Minister of Tertiary and Higher Education Dr Stan Mudenge that no student should be expelled for failing to raise fees in foreign currency, institutions were continuing to chase non-paying students away.

"We express our anger and bitterness to college and university authorities who are defying the calls by the government to allow students who have not paid fees to attend lectures," said Vava. "Zinasu urges all students in tertiary institutions to defy any [exclusion] attempts by anyone, in whatever capacity, who tries to disturb their lectures and studies."

University fees ranging from US$700 to $1,500 a semester, implemented in January, were reduced after violent student demonstrations. Hard sciences and engineering students, for instance, had fees slashed from $1,200 to $350 while medical and veterinary fees dropped from $1,600 to $400 per semester.

But students still maintain that fees are too high and are demanding to pay in local currency.

Last month, Higher Education Minister Mudenge said students who could not pay should not be suspended but should apply for the government's cadetship programme. The government covers fees for cadets but obliges students to work for the government for the same number of years they were funded to study. The programme has been overwhelmed with requests and the government is failing to cope with the applications.

At Bindura University of Science and Technology, 589 cadetship forms were returned to students after the government said there was insufficient funding. At the National University of Science and Technology, students on the cadetship programme were told the government paid only for tuition fees and they had to pay US$150 for accommodation, which they could not afford.

The student campaign against forex is unlikely to change government's decision that fees be charged in US dollars, especially after Finance Minister Tendai Biti told parliament recently predicted state revenue had fallen by 43% from the initial US$1.9 billion to US$1 billion.

But last week the University of Zimbabwe failed to open on 30 March as promised. It closed in January after student protests against forex fee payments. Lovemore Chonoputsa, Zinasu secretary-general, said vice-chancellor Professor Levi Nyagura had put up notices saying the opening has been postponed indefinitely.

The reason given was the need to renovate student hotels, said Chonoputsa, "but we have it on good authority that the real reason is that the university has not received funding from government. We have not been learning for the past six months and the latest development will have a negative impact on students as they are no longer sure of when they will finish there studies."

In a statement last week Zinasu said students could not be held responsible for the decay of state institutions "and therefore we will not finance the resuscitation of these universities". Many members of the new government benefited from free higher education, said Zinasu, "and in this spirit they should ensure the current generation of students is not disadvantaged".

The students union castigated especially its 'friends' in the new government who they had expected to rapidly revamp the collapsed education system. "It seems they have quickly lost interest in pursuing the students' agenda," the Zinasu statement complained.