ZIMBABWE: New higher education reforms

Zimbabwe's Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai has drafted a programme to reform higher education and re-engage with the international community in a move likely to benefit universities after a decade of isolation. But rising anger against exorbitant fees saw students last week assault a polytechnic principal.

Tsvangirai - leader of the former opposition Movement for Democratic Change who formed a government of national unity with long-time autocratic ruler Robert Mugabe in February 2009 - spelt out the new initiative under the government work programme for 2010.

His push came at a time of mounting student disgruntlement over financial obstacles to higher education access and the unity government's failure to deliver higher education reforms to a sector battered by Mugabe's ruinous policies.

Students at Masvingo Polytechnic last week assaulted principal Claver Nyamukapa over the issue of unaffordable fees. These are pegged in US dollars, South African rands and Botswana pulas.

Most people, including students, are struggling to raise foreign currencies that were adopted as legal tender to replace the Zimbabwe dollar when it was rendered unusable by ravaging inflation that at one time reached 2.3 million percent - the world's highest.

In an effort to introduce change in higher education, Tsvangirai, a reformist who is constitutionally charged with implementing government policy, said a new law to develop national qualifications would be in place before the end of this year.

The Zimbabwe Qualifications Authority Bill will "integrate and harmonise qualifications and provide for the development of national qualifications standards", according to the work programme.

Tsvangirai said there would be a programme aimed at engaging Western countries that had imposed targeted sanctions against Mugabe and his inner circle.

Foreign countries, including the US, had provided funds and built institutions of higher learning such as the Belvedere Teacher Training Institute in the capital Harare. But aid to higher education and other areas was frozen several years ago in protest against human rights abuses perpetrated by Mugabe's government.

International companies also declined to deal with universities in Zimbabwe. America's Microsoft Corporation stopped support for Africa University while ETAP Enterprise Solutions last year declined to supply Chinhoyi University of Technology with electrical solutions software.

Tsvangirai's work programme proposed specific actions to promote the re-engagement of foreign countries.

Earlier this year, while maintaining targeted sanctions, the European Union heeded Tsvangirai's recommendation to remove some state firms from its embargo list. But it remains to be seen whether - and when - higher education might benefit from the latest initiative.

While it is a commendable effort by the Government of Zimbabwe to reform higher education in the country, special attention should be paid to the quality of education visa a vis the reforms.