ZIMBABWE: Forex-short students barter fees

Zimbabwean students have resorted to bartering to pay fees because of critical foreign currency shortages, according to a report by the country's Comptroller and Auditor General Mildred Chiri. Some students have settled payments using groceries, livestock and other valuables instead of cash.

"My examination of records maintained revealed that students had settled their outstanding obligations in kind by tendering valuables other than cash such as sugar beans, cows, goats, wheat, maize, provisions, fertiliser, chemicals and fuel coupons," the country's top auditor said in her report for the first quarter of the 2009 financial year, tabled in parliament last month.

"It was submitted that the items tendered in this manner were assessed and qualified at the prevailing market value and equated to the outstanding fees for each course."

The government dollarised the economy in February this year, in part to escape world-record inflation that at one time stood at 1.5 million percent, resulting in widespread poverty. The South African rand, United States dollar and Botswana pula are now legal tender and inflation has since dropped to below 2%.

But most Zimbabweans have little forex so some students resorted to barter in an effort to pay tuition fees of around US$150, as well as other payments such as accommodation.

In her report, Chiri said Zimbabwe's Ministry of Finance, as the custodian of government assets and finances, had not foreseen settling of bills through barter trade and had not made the necessary arrangements for auditing purposes.

Following introduction of dollarisation, the Zimbabwe National Students Union (Zinasu) - the country's biggest student union - launched a campaign opposing payment of fees in foreign currency. But the campaign failed.

Meanwhile, lecturers at the National University of Science Technology have gone on strike to protest against poor salaries. This follows year-long industrial action at universities that only ended after the formation of an inclusive government between President Robert Mugabe's ZANU PF party and the Movement for Democratic Change led by Morgan Tsvangirai, now Prime Minister.

"The college authorities had made arrangements with the lecturers to pay them US$150 every week as part of their salaries but the lecturers report that they have gone for more than seven weeks without receiving the agreed amount and this triggered them to go on strike," Zinasu said in a statement.

The union said students at the university were being victimised. Three student leaders, including Brian Mutisi, were detained on 9 November after addressing first-year students in the college hall at the national university.

Eleven students were recently arrested at Great Zimbabwe University for allegedly holding an illegal political meeting on campus and possessing a firearm ahead of a scheduled visit by Mugabe. The students deny the charges.