Provide solutions to challenges, universities told

President Emmerson Mnangagwa says universities must offer productive and responsive higher education, relevant to the needs of the economy, by harnessing knowledge and skills that promote economic development through science, technology and research.

Speaking at a meeting with vice-chancellors of universities in Harare on Tuesday, meant to catalyse the role of universities in growing the economy, Mnangagwa called for a review of the country’s higher education system by examining its efficacy in providing solutions to the myriad challenges facing the economy.

“Institutions of higher learning have a leading role in shaping the economy through science and technology by being the test beds for innovation and educating future generations. They should recognise the agricultural sector and agro-based value chain industries as an integral part of our economy.

“The pursuit of economic growth reminds us to think creatively and positively about the manufacturing sector, value addition and beneficiation, import substitution and export promotion,” he said.

Mnangagwa, who rose to power through a bloodless coup d’état in November, encouraged local universities to establish synergies with industry and renowned international universities or centres of academic excellence to boost capacity in research and technology development.

He bemoaned high levels of corruption at institutions of higher learning and exhorted them to stop the vice that has seen undeserving students getting passes.

“Our children, both male and female alike, should not be subjected to abuse in whatever form, for marks or higher grades. Learners must be free to report any cases of corruption without fear or favour and perpetrators should be brought to book,” he noted.

He added that government was riled by cases of moral decadence at institutions.

“Real men do not prowl our university campuses and take advantage of our young girls’ socio-economic backgrounds to abuse them in whatever form or style. All higher learning institutions should endeavour to protect, promote and preserve cultural values and practices that enhance the dignity, well-being and equality of Zimbabweans.”

He urged universities and colleges to improve learning conditions for students by providing adequate accommodation, well-resourced libraries and equipped laboratories and technology development centres.

This, he said, could be achieved partly through forging partnerships with the corporate world, civil society and the diaspora community.

Newly appointed Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development Professor Amon Murwira said despite the rapid transformation of the higher education sector since independence in 1980, its expansion has not been accompanied by “pragmatic” research based on national priorities.

“We can no longer be going to school for going to school’s sake. Our literacy must be transformed into goods and services,” he said.

Murwira said overtures by polytechnics and teachers' colleges to offer degrees would not be honoured, as the institutions were created for specific purposes that were different from that of universities.

Secretary for the Task Force on Transformation of Higher Education for Industrialisation and Modernisation, who is also the vice-chancellor of Africa University, Professor Munashe Furusa, said while local universities were well-endowed with material resources and human capital, they required innovative and robust initiatives to foster economic development.

The task force was formed in May 2017 by vice-chancellors to champion the role of universities in promoting economic development. Universities have since carried out internal expertise and skills audits, identified priority areas that do not require major investments and have drawn up areas of cooperation with various sectors of the economy.

“Universities, under the guidance of the task force, are already carrying out several cutting-edge research and innovation activities, some of which are already part of the ministry of higher education’s 100-day delivery plan. Many of the research projects and activities are in the critical areas of mining, agriculture, tourism and health,” Furusa said.

Universities were also developing curricula that facilitate industrialisation and modernisation of the economy in order to produce experts with high-end skills in critical areas of national development to drive innovation, product development and provide solutions to national challenges, he said.

However, resources were inevitably an issue.

“Universities' laboratories, innovation and business incubation hubs need retooling with modern equipment and technologies. Significant funding is required to support cutting-edge research and recruitment of qualified personnel and to drive the production of applied research, and facilitate the implementation of new curricula aligned with the direction of our national development,” said Furusa.

He said he hoped that government would seriously consider supporting the new efforts by universities to transform the economy.

Mnangagwa said his government, which is hamstrung by limited fiscal capacity and financial obligations, would continue to support universities, but urged them to strategically use their own resources to offer new products and services.