Minister unveils ambitious plans for higher education

Zimbabwe’s new and extensive development plans include creating innovation hubs at universities, upgrading student accommodation, making higher education more affordable for students and establishing the country’s first geospatial and space agency.

Government is to spend about US$3 million establishing the Zimbabwe National Geospatial and Space Agency (ZINGSA) launched in July, said Higher Education, Science and Technology Development Minister Amon Murwira.

Speaking on Star FM Zimbabwe’s The Ministers’ Desk on 1 October, Murwira said ZINGSA – whose mandate was to design and promote research and innovation in geospatial science, and regulate related activities – would be constructed in stages. He added that instead of questioning how much ZINGSA would cost, the nation should welcome the many benefits that it would bring.

Satellite not a luxury

“Satellite is not a luxury … It is a multi-trillion industry that will enable us to discover resources, construct early warning systems and create immense business for the country,” he said. “We will need US$3 million as core funding, but we know it will make much more business that it will cost.”

Murwira added that making ZINGSA operational and setting up innovation hubs at state universities were among his aims during his first 100 days in office. The hubs would create new ideas and employment, he said. Another goal was to stimulate research through the establishment of industrial parks in 10 of the country’s provinces.

Six state universities have so far received US$15 million in government funding to establish innovation hubs, in line with government initiatives to ensure that higher education institutions provide solutions to economic challenges and transform inventions into commercial enterprise.

Other targets included the approval of master plans for the new state institutions – Gwanda University, Manicaland State University, the Marondera University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, and the Pan-African Mineral University – as well as the implementation of the coal-to-fuels and fertiliser-from-coal projects.

Accommodation upgrade

Murwira said as it was the government’s responsibility to provide decent accommodation for students and ensure that all universities had adequate infrastructure, it had introduced a US$1.5 billion development programme in July that would assist the private sector in constructing and modernising tertiary education infrastructure on a build-operate-transfer model. About 10 state institutions would benefit from the programme.
Out of an estimated student population of 180,000 at state universities, only 15,000 have access to campus accommodation.

The minister also advised HE and tertiary education institutions not to bar students for failing to pay their fees, as this was against government policy. In the past two weeks, the Harare Polytechnic barred students for non-payment, plus seven third-year medical students at the University of Zimbabwe began crowdfunding for fees in order not to be precluded from writing their examinations.

Zimbabwe National Students’ Union Secretary General Ashley Pfunye said incidences of students being barred from class for failing to pay fees were rife and the union often asked university administrations to make soft payment plans with students.

Student loans scheme

Meanwhile, it has been reported that Zimbabwe has turned to a South African financial institution Edu-Loan, a subsidiary of Fundi, to roll out a US$10 million student loan scheme after the existing facility involving local banks was criticised by the intended beneficiaries who decried its alleged prohibitive requirements.

In June, the country’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa launched a US$1 billion loan scheme that proved unpopular with students. Four banks and two micro-finance lending institutions were expected to meet half the budget, with the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe covering the balance under a scheme in which both students and parents were regarded as co-debtors.

One financial institution involved in the scheme said its loan facility had a five-year payback period and an interest rate of 10% per annum, with lending institutions required to pay the fees directly into college or university accounts.

The requirements caused an outcry among students, who said the interest rate was prohibitive and the requirement that the loans be guaranteed by their employed parents was restrictive in a country with up to 90% unemployment, forcing government to look into neighbouring South Africa for a possible solution. Murwira said EduLoan will offer the loans at below 10%.

The ministry will also hold talks with local banks on the US$1 billion facility to ensure that they relax loan conditions and two loan facilities would be operational, he said.