ZIMBABWE: University's funds looted, intakes frozen

The University of Zimbabwe is battling to recover nearly US$5 million in research funds looted from its foreign currency account by the central bank during the country's economic crisis. Meanwhile, the institution has frozen intakes in some departments as the country's brain drain takes its toll - and a nationwide lecturer strike at public universities continues.

The highest paid lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe earns US$290 a month, far short of the salaries of up to US$2,000 paid to other academics in the region. Following a decade-long political and economic crisis the government said it could only afford a pay increase of $17 a month to state employees, most of whom earn less than $200 a month.

When state coffers were empty during the economic crisis, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe raided private accounts in a bid to prop up the regime of long-time ruler President Robert Mugabe, threatened with collapse because of rising opposition and targeted sanctions. A number of universities lost funds this way.

A recent parliamentary report said University of Zimbabwe lecturers had sourced US$4.71 million from donors for research activities. But the money had been looted by the central bank and had still not been returned. The report called on the bank to reimburse the money.

Earlier this month University World News reported that universities countrywide were suffering a severe shortage of academic and non-academic staff as a result of the brain drain, and that Zimbabwe University's science departments had been hit most heavily. The institution has fewer than 500 lecturers but requires 1,200.

Vice-chancellor Professor Levi Nyagura said the brain drain meant some departments could not admit students when the university opened in January. Nyagura declined to give details but said metallurgy and mining engineering were among fields where intakes had been frozen.

The Zimbabwe National Students Union, Zinasu, said the flight of academics had forced tertiary institutions to employ under-qualified teachers including recent graduates. This was impacting on the quality of graduates.

The Zimbabwe Chamber of Mines said the brain drain and closure of science departments in universities was affecting the maintenance of mining and metallurgical operations, the replacement of exhausted deposits and the expansion of others in a country that boasts gold, diamonds, copper, platinum, coal and other mineral deposits.

The chamber said in a report that vacancies for experienced people might have to be filled in the short term by expatriate staff. But this would be "inordinately expensive".

Meanwhile, Nyagura - who is on a list of people targeted by sanctions for suppression of academic freedom - has come under attack for his claims that despite problems besetting the university it remains a university of choice in the world.

In an opinion article in a leading Zimbabwean weekly newspaper, Dr Bernard Gwekwerere, an independent education and development analyst, said the claim the institution was a university of choice was contradicted by world rankings.

Gwekwerere cited the SCImago Institutions Rankings 2009 World Report, which placed the University of Zimbabwe at number 1,847 out of the top 2,000 world universities. It is not even among the top 20 universities in Africa, he added.

"Excellence in teaching is an important virtue but it is not the defining character of universities. Any university can teach. That is a basic role. However, not every university can conduct research and create knowledge. When it comes to universities, it is research that separates the boys from the men," Gwekwerere wrote.

"Zimbabwe needs universities that conduct research to create knowledge that helps to lift its people out of poverty."

On the brain drain, Gwekwerere argued that academics who had left the country had done so because they could compete in the cut-throat global employment market while those who remained generally had lower qualifications.