University of Zimbabwe guns for top-10 status in Africa

Zimbabwe’s flagship university has set its sights on being one of the top 10 universities on the African continent by the year 2020, according to its vice-chancellor. Students are less sanguine about its prospects, however.

At the recent launch of the University of Zimbabwe’s latest five-year strategic plan for 2016-20, Professor Levi Nyagura said student enrolment at the university had grown by more than 700% from 2,280 in 1980 to 17,000 in 2017.

The plan is the institution’s fifth since it embraced strategic planning in 1998.

Nyagura said the university aims to increase overall student enrolment to 22,000 by 2020 as it positions itself to be among the best universities in Africa.

“It is our goal to be among the top 10 best universities on the African continent by the year 2020. The strategic plan…. clearly addresses the challenges that the university is likely to face in the coming few years, in particular, the expansion in student numbers, and the attendant need to develop corresponding teaching and learning facilities… as well as the need to explore and develop alternative sources of funding in order to extricate the institution from heavy reliance on state funding."

League of top universities

“We are fully committed to the success of this strategic plan and to catapult the University of Zimbabwe to its rightful place among the league of top universities in the region, continent and the globe,” he said.

In 2015, the University of Zimbabwe, or UZ, was ranked 48th in Africa by 4icu, an international higher education search engine and directory reviewing accredited universities and colleges in the world.

Known before independence in 1980 as the University College of Rhodesia, the university now has 10 faculties which include agriculture, arts, commerce, education, engineering, law, science, social studies, veterinary science, and a college of health sciences.

Council Chairman Ambassador Buzwani Mothobi said the new plan will internationalise the university through the development of new graduate and postgraduate programmes that attract international students and staff.

Against this backdrop, the university intends to increase student accommodation to ensure that at least 10,000 or 60% of students live in residence.

Accommodation is a big challenge for universities in Zimbabwe with the greater population of students living off campus.

Infrastructural growth

The university also has an ambitious plan to build two lecture theatres with a capacity of over 1,000 each, a golf course, a recreational park, a supermarket, and to set up a postgraduate centre.

By the end of this year, the university says at least 90% of teaching staff will hold a PhD.

Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development Minister Professor Jonathan Moyo said the plan should stimulate national, continental and international demand for the university’s teaching programmes.

It would also improve research.

“We expect the new strategic plan to put in place a new research template that will improve the volume, quality and relevance of UZ’s research programmes in terms of income and reputation in response to community, national, regional and international challenges or problems,” he said.

Moyo commended the university for introducing new STEM-based teaching programmes, which he said were pivotal in supporting the country’s industrialisation, modernisation and training for high-end skills.

Financial data

Figures extrapolated from the plan’s financial data show that the university has its work cut out for itself in its quest to become self-sufficient. From 2013 to 2015, the university’s total expenses have dwarfed total income.

The negative trend was bucked only in 2016, when the university’s total income amounted to US$92.2 million against expenses of US$91.4 million, to reflect a surplus of US$803,000.

UZ Student Representative Council vice-president and Zimbabwe National Students’ Union spokesperson Zivai Mhetu said UZ needed much more than a strategic plan to reach its full potential and resolve current problems such as an accommodation crisis and staffing shortages.

Due to dwindling funding from government, prevailing harsh economic conditions, and the difficulty encountered in paying fees by students, it was unlikely the university would achieve its goal of becoming a top-10 African university by 2020, he said.

According to Mhetu, UZ is currently owed over US$1 million by students while the government, through its now defunct cadetship programme, also owes universities millions in unpaid fees.

Myriad challenges

“Although there is progress in developing the institution, it is greatly overshadowed by a myriad of challenges facing the college,” he said.

He said that apart from having a good infrastructure and teaching staff, in order to be considered a top university, a college has to have a good student to faculty ratio, a good academic reputation, great research, and a high rate of employment among its alumni – attributes that UZ lacks.

“Its academic reputation is at an all-time low after allegations of the non-procedural allocation of degrees in recent years,” he said.

In 2014, First Lady Grace Mugabe raised eyebrows around the world when she earned her PhD from the University of Zimbabwe two months after enrolling for the degree and soon after being endorsed to lead the women's wing of the ruling party, ZANU-PF. At the time, the Zimbabwe students’ union demanded the resignation of the university’s authorities.