Universities recommit to STEM mandates

Facing tight economic conditions, Zimbabwe’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, universities are grappling with a long-standing government directive to revert to their core mandate of teaching mainly science-related courses.

The country’s Higher Education Minister Jonathan Moyo instructed universities to abide by their original mandates when he visited institutions of higher learning after he was appointed in 2015, and has been pushing the teaching of STEM subjects ever since.

The ministry’s directive states that there should be a 70:30 ratio of courses in favour of sciences.

Due to the persistent economic crisis, many universities resorted to introducing commerce-type disciplines which arguably cost less to establish than science subjects and are in relatively high demand by students.

Among those universities supposed to be at the forefront of STEM teaching, which have explored other teaching avenues, are the National University of Science and Technology, the University of Zimbabwe, the Harare Institute of Technology, the Chinhoyi University of Technology and the Bindura University of Science Education.

According to the National University of Science and Technology, or NUST, yearbook released last month, the average expenditure for STEM disciplines per student is nearly double that of non-STEM students.

“Over the five-year period from 2012 to 2016, average expenditure per student for STEM disciplines was US$4,722 as against US$2,815 for non-STEM students, reflecting the funding pressures that will be associated with higher STEM enrolments.

"This however can be mitigated by higher postgraduate enrolment for which fees are typically as much as 50% higher and increased international student enrolment – which is associated with a higher cap on fees – outside the constraints of the SADC protocol,” it states.

“The increase in STEM enrolment to 70% – which carries a higher cost structure – will require new interventions in order to ensure a balanced budget. A drive for an international students enrolment in the region of 20% is one such initiative,” said NUST.

According to the yearbook, the institution has admitted a number of students in excess of the preferred class capacities for each programme in order to boost STEM student numbers as directed by government.

Departments such as chemical engineering, civil and water engineering, and industrial and manufacturing engineering are also now running parallel programmes, providing an expanded opportunity for more students to access higher education in STEM.

“However, overall investment per student should eventually rise to at least equal such investment in neighbouring South African universities, which are often more than three times the NUST level of expenditure per student. This is important not only to improve services to the client, the student, but also to advance the internationalisation thrust and improve rankings,” the yearbook states.

NUST spokesman Felix Moyo said that while it was relatively easy to raise the non-STEM enrolments (whose revenue has been supporting and sustaining the STEM courses), it was not possible in the absence of additional infrastructure to raise STEM enrolments.

“We never at any period decreased the [actual] STEM figures. [This incorrect] perception was created by the rise of non-STEM enrolments. We always used the available STEM infrastructure and facilities to the full: 100%.

“However, we have begun to address our enrolment ratios in favour of STEM. Looking at our 2016 into 2017 enrolments of our Part One (first-year) students, total enrolment was 59.01% STEM, while non-STEM was 40.99%.

Our 2017 into 2018 enrolments (the current) are 61.73% STEM and 38.27% non-STEM. This means that when one looks at our Part One and Part Two (second-year) students today, we are more STEM than non-STEM. We will continue this trend. As the older groups exit the system and new intakes take over, the composition of the student body will reflect this current thrust,” he said.

Speaking during the University of Zimbabwe graduation ceremony last Friday, University of Zimbabwe Vice-Chancellor Professor Levi Nyagura said that the institution had reviewed its curriculum to promote STEM.

“Our focus is to produce graduates with a strong foundation in science, engineering, mathematical sciences and technology, and with problem-solving and analytical skills,” he said.

“In particular, we have resolved to provide training in aeronautical engineering with our inaugural group of 32 students admitted into the programme in February 2017. We have also continued to expand our GIS [geographic information system] and Earth Observation Sciences. The motivation for this development is the realisation that geographical sciences are key to human security, including disaster and emergency response, crime and terrorism prevention, and surveillance of diseases and disease vector outbreaks.”

He said that there was a significant increase in female participation in most STEM degree programmes and that he believes female participation rates can grow rapidly if there are proper interventions at the high school level.