ZIMBABWE: Student grants scheme suspended

Zimbabwe has suspended the newly introduced student grants scheme due to political bickering, as parliamentarians push for the abolition of President Robert Mugabe's separate and controversial scholarship fund, which supports a privileged few to study at foreign universities.

In December Finance Minister Tendai Biti (pictured) announced as part of the 2011 unity government's budget that student grants had been revived - nearly a decade after being shelved due to an economic crisis that saw world-record inflation at one stage reaching 1.3 million per cent in Zimbabwe.

But two weeks ago Higher Education Minister Stan Mudenge announced the suspension of student grants, saying the government had no money. Announcing the suspension Mudenge, a member of Mugabe's Zanu-PF party, said the funds for the scheme were inadequate and his ministry would use the money to cover a deficit outstanding from 2010 from a previous student scheme, the controversial cadetship scheme.

Mudenge accused Biti, who is also Secretary General of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC, of practising "juju economics".

In his budget Biti had said government, in conjunction with the Zimbabwe Allied Banking Group, was reintroducing student grants and loans; government would put in US$15 million while the bank would chip in with an equivalent amount.

But appearing before the parliamentary portfolio committee on education, Higher Education. Secretary Washington Mbizvo said he regretted that the finance minister had announced the programme before undertaking the necessary consultations.

In a statement last week, the Students Solidarity Trust (SST), a not-for-profit organisation dealing with tertiary education issues, expressed regret at the suspension of the loan scheme.

"On 13 February, the government of national unity commemorates its second year. For students, the last two years have not been good at all. The discord and lack of rapport from the two ministries only exposes students and puts them in a difficult situation.

"The Students Solidarity Trust notes with sadness the failure by government to rectify the problems bedeviling the higher education ministry and the lack of initiatives by the ministry officials to alleviate the plight of students," said the statement.

The SST argued the cadetship scheme has left students in a far worse situation, due to the strict conditionalities attached to it. The organisation said: "Reports of students being unable to access the facility abound, with several students coming to the SST for assistance alleging that they have not been able to access funds from the scheme."

In a separate statement Secretary General Kudakwashe Chakabva of the country's largest student union, the Zimbabwe National Students Union (Zinasu), said the absence of the scheme for the past decade has led to thousands of students dropping out of university as authorities ignored advice from various quarters to improve the sector.

"Instead of listening to the voices of students the government preferred to be deaf and dumb to those calls. What then followed is a man-made calamity as thousands of students are being forced to defer or drop out of tertiary education completely, mainly because they rejected the scheme or were barred from the scheme," said Zinasu.

The issue of grants comes at a time when lawmakers are debating Mugabe's scholarship fund, anchored on taxpayers' money, in terms of which students are sent to foreign universities, especially elsewhere in Africa, to study.

One of the preferred South African destinations is the University of Fort Hare, where Mugabe once studied.

The student funding debate started in the House of Assembly in December and will resume next month when parliament returns from its break. In one contribution MDC for Highfield lawmaker Simon Hove said the money currently spent on scholarships for overseas study could benefit thousands of students studying at local institutions.

"Every year we spend over US$2,000 on fees for one student, US$300 on pocket [money] and US$1,000 on airfares. This alone could go a long way in helping local students," he said.

Hove concluded: "We are exporting the little resources we have and have joined those who are sabotaging the economy by externalisation."