ZAMBIA: University access limited

Access to higher education in Zambia remains "limited and unsatisfactory" due to poor maintenance and an increase in the school-going population, according to University of Zambia Vice-chancellor Professor Steven Simukanga. But Simukanga says progress is being made.

In an address to the university's 39th graduation ceremony for medical students earlier this month, Simukanga said the country's oldest institution of higher learning - established 43 years ago - faced numerous problems including inadequate funding, which was a challenge to its operation.

But the university had continued to make progress in a number of areas. Implementation of its 2008-2012 strategic plan, with the theme of restoring excellence in teaching, research and public service, was underway and had the potential to transform the institution into a modern developmental university.

"There has been notable progress in the development of infrastructure at the institution following a long period of virtual stagnation," Simukanga said. Internet facilities - including wireless internet access in and around some student hostels - had been improved.

To help overcome its lack of resources, the university had increased collaboration with other institutions around the world and maintained membership of the Southern African Regional Universities' Association, the Association of African Universities and the Association of Commonwealth Universities.

At the time of independence from Britain in 1964, Zambia had only 108 indigenous university graduates - all trained abroad - the vice-chancellor pointed out. Now it produced sufficient graduates to fulfil most of its manpower needs.

Simukanga said the graduation of 220 medical students was significant not only for the graduates but also for the nation at a time when it faced major difficulties in improving the delivery of health services.

The vice-chancellor conceded the current graduation of medical students did not address personnel shortages in the medical field. "Indeed, the major contributing factor to poor health care delivery is inadequate human resources and the Zambian health care system has been characterised by a lack of trained health personnel, particularly doctors," he said.

Currently, the ratio of physicians per 1,000 people is around 0.09 - substantially lower than in countries such as South Africa and Egypt, where the ratio is 0.31 and 0.92 respectively. The new cohort of graduates would clearly contribute towards better health care delivery in the nation, he said.

Simukanga told the graduates that in a poor country such as Zambia, science and technology was the only way out of the quagmire. "Most of our people still wallow in poverty because of lack of relevant technologies to harness our natural resources visa-vis land, water, flora and fauna in order to produce the goods and services that our people need," he said.

"Now is the time to use the power of knowledge in science and technology, so that we can produce processes and add value to our abundant natural resources. We will face enormous challenges ahead of us. Many people may be pessimistic, but we cannot give up for knowledge is the greatest weapon against poverty."