Criticism over planned Robert Mugabe university

In a widely criticised move, the Zimbabwean government has announced plans to build a US$1 billion science and technology university named after its long-time ruler, 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe.

The plans, approved by cabinet recently, have been criticised by academics, students and opposition parties who have consistently highlighted the harsh economic situation in the country marked by company closures, unemployment of 90% and disinvestment, as well as the state’s inability to pay its workers on time.

The university – which will cost one quarter of the annual national budget of US$4 billion – will be located in the scenic Mazowe district in Mashonaland Central province where Mugabe’s wife Grace Mugabe has already built a school and an orphanage, both of which are named after her.

Among Grace Mugabe’s other assets in the area are an opulent double-storey mansion at Mapfeni Farm, and Manzou Farm from which she has been evicting thousands of villagers since 2011. There is also a dairy farm.

Endowment fund

The cabinet approved a grant of US$800 million towards the construction of the university, and a grant of US$200 million towards the establishment of the university’s endowment fund for research and innovation.

President Mugabe and his wife are to be the founding trustees of the university which will be run by the Robert Gabriel Mugabe Foundation.

In a statement, Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development Minister Professor Jonathan Moyo said the STEM-focused university will aim to educate and inspire a new generation of “technologically-minded leaders and innovators”.

He said the university will be designed to facilitate the discovery of scientific, technological and engineering solutions to improve the quality of life in Zimbabwe and humanity.

Eight clusters

It will have eight clusters: computer engineering, nanoscience and nanotechnology, actuarial and mathematical sciences, architectural and structural engineering, telecommunications and electronic engineering, biomedical engineering, international relations and geospatial intelligence, and biotechnology engineering. The university will produce “super specialists and super experts” who will champion Zimbabwe’s industrialisation and modernisation, he said.

An important feature of the university will be the Robert Gabriel Mugabe Institute, which will focus on “research, historical collections, library and studies on transformative and revolutionary leadership, thinking and attributes that shaped the man, Robert Gabriel Mugabe, to evolve from humble beginnings into an iconic global leader”.

The minister said the establishment of the university is in recognition of President Mugabe’s commitment to education and his exemplary leadership. Mugabe is arguably the world’s most educated leader and the oldest president at age 93. Speaking in 2008, his spokesperson George Charamba said Mugabe had read for seven degrees and had honorary degrees from Africa, Asia, former Eastern Europe, Europe and America.

'Unquenchable ego'

Secretary general of the Zimbabwe National Students Union Makomborero Haruzivishe said the union was not against the idea of building schools and universities, but was opposed to the abuse of taxpayers' money to water the unquenchable ego of a tyrant in the name of building a university.

“The government of Zimbabwe has long proven to have adopted a 'habitual dereliction of duty' towards education as its de facto national education policy. The already existing universities are extremely underfunded, thus compromising on quality of proper institutional management and of education,” he said.

“This has also affected access to education for all since the same government is clearly unwilling to uphold and implement Section 75 of the Constitution which guarantees us the right to education. On 31 July 2017, the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee published research results which exposed that in the first term of the 2017 school calendar, 63% of students were turned away from institutions due to failure to pay expensive tuition fees,” he said.

Massive dropouts

In the previous academic year, 42,000 higher and tertiary education students either deferred or dropped out of school altogether as a result of failure to pay, he said.

According to Haruzivishe, existing universities are owed over a US$100 million in administrative expenses by a government that is churning out US$1 billion to build President Robert Mugabe a personal university to add to … his family empire in Mazowe.

Spokesperson for the main opposition party the Movement for Democratic Change Obert Gutu described the US$1 billion university plans as populism that defies logic.

“It is meant to stroke Mugabe's ego because we know this government is broke," Gutu said.

’Misplaced priorities’

Zimbabwean political analyst Dr Ricky Mukonza, who is also a lecturer in the Department of Public Management at South Africa’s Tshwane University of Technology, said the proposal to build a Robert Mugabe University is a sign that the Zimbabwean government operates on the basis of misplaced priorities.

“Zimbabwe already has a number of universities that are struggling financially. What would have made sense from a public interest point of view is for government to capacitate the existing universities before thinking of building a new one. Another surprising aspect of the whole saga is that the Zimbabwean economy has been struggling to absorb graduates from the existing universities, why build a new university before fixing the economy?

“What one finds very apparent … is the selfishness that is driving proponents of the idea. In spite of the fact that public resources are being used, it’s not about serving the public interest. Building the university is meant to endear the involved ministers to the president, thus keeping them close to the levers of power,” said Mukonza.

A slide back to 2008?

Last month, MDC MP Eddie Cross warned in parliament that Zimbabwe risks sliding backwards to the 2008 era when it had the highest inflation in the world and resorted to continuously printing money.

He said of great concern is that the country started 2017 with a projected budget deficit of US$400 million, but it will now exceed US$1.6 billion.

“This relates to a whole lot of unbudgeted expenditure [and] over-expenditure in certain particular special areas. Mr Speaker, we cannot go on spending money recklessly like this.

"In fact, this brings back memories of the situation in 2007-08 when the Reserve Bank, using its unauthorised rights as a quasi-fiscal agency of government, was printing money in order to finance a massive government deficit and to try and keep the economy going. The consequences of that were the total destruction of our Zimbabwe dollar, of all savings in the country for more than a 100 years and the closure of the majority of our industries,” said the MP.