ZIMBABWE: Government restores student grants

The government has restored higher education grants after they were scrapped about a decade ago due to Zimbabwe's political and economic crisis. The restoration of grants came after Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai pleaded with students to stop a planned class boycott against deteriorating standards and promised the government would address their concerns.

Student unions had complained that Zimbabwe's inclusive government, formed in February 2009 after a unity pact between long-time autocratic ruler President Robert Mugabe and Tsvangirai - his arch rival and leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) - had failed to address plummeting standards in higher education.

In one tangible step forward, Finance Minister Tendai Biti told parliament recently, while unveiling the country's 2011 budget, that with effect from January next year the authorities will reintroduce grants to both state-run institutions of higher learning and to students.

"One of the things which we are doing is on the absence of a loan grant scheme. With a local financial institution ZB Bank and government chipping in with US$15 million, we are reinstating the student loan. We are going to increase grants to our institutions - one of the things dear to our hearts," he said.

Biti, a lawyer by profession, was trained at the University of Zimbabwe, the country's prime and oldest institution of higher learning, which has in recent years been reduced to a shadow of its former self due to a shortage of lecturers that has seen a number of faculties closed.

The minister added that US$30 million has been set aside for the rehabilitation of halls of residence that have been closed indefinitely at some institutions of higher learning, such as at the University of Zimbabwe, due to the absence of functioning toilets and lack of clean drinking water.

Last year, UNICEF sank nine boreholes at the University of Zimbabwe to avert a cholera crisis but the situation remains dire. Biti said the institution would be given US$3.5 million to construct a water tank and rehabilitate its halls of residence, among other improvements.

Apart from universities, the minister said polytechnics and teacher colleges have also been provided with funds for the upgrading of equipment and rehabilitation of buildings.

The minister added that Zimbabwe was increasingly facing a brain drain in pharmacy and dentistry and for this reason $1.5 million has been set aside for a cadetship programme in these departments. The programme compels beneficiaries to serve the state for the number of years they would have received government funding.