ZIMBABWE: Protesting students torch lecture theatre

Students at Zimbabwe's National University of Science Technology went on the rampage recently and set a lecture theatre on fire, destroying property worth more than US$10,000 in protest against stringent conditions for accessing government loans. Nationwide around 41,000 students, unable to pay fees, have applied for loans so far this year.

Other property of the university, NUST, was also destroyed by students angry over demands attached to national cadetship programme they have described as akin to slave labour.

The conditions are among other things an attempt by the authorities to discourage a severe brain drain from a country where 90% of people are unemployed and where a decade of political and economic crisis sparked mass flight to neighbouring countries and abroad.

Loan recipients are obliged to serve the country for a period at least as long as their higher education study takes, or remit a third of their salary if they opt to work outside Zimbabwe after tertiary study, as University World News reported in May.

Zimbabwe 'dollarised' in February 2009 to end run-away inflation that at one point hit 2.3 million percent. The US dollar, South African Rand and Botswana Pula were adopted as currencies. Students, many of whose parents are civil servants who earn below $300 a month, were faced with fee bills of up to $1,500 per semester. Thousands were unable to pay.

Besides the 41,000 university students who have applied for government funding after failing to pay fees, some 110,000 final year secondary school students have also failed to pay final examination fees this year that are pegged as $10 per subject.

Student anger and frustration boiled over at NUST, resulting in the destructive protest.

Last week the Secretary for Higher and Tertiary Education, Dr Washington Mbizvo, said in an interview that "a process is under way to identify culprits. The law will take its course." He claimed that the Zimbabwe National Students Union, the country's largest student union, was visiting institutions and intimidating students from applying for state loans.