Minister blocks proposed hikes in university tuition fees

The Zimbabwean government has refused to approve proposed fee hikes by local universities and colleges, at least until the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic has receded.

Professor Amon Murwira, the minister of higher and tertiary education, innovation, science and technology development, made the announcement.

Murwira said earlier, in January, that the purpose of the country’s universities was not to generate profits, and insisted that the current fee structures must be maintained, citing affordability, reasonability and sustainability as the three factors that determine fee hikes.

“The fee structure we are maintaining at universities is even lower than those being charged by most boarding schools in the country. But, we know that parents are hard-pressed and no fee hikes will be approved until such a time when the economic conditions have relatively improved,” he said.

Students welcomed the announcement, but hoped the minister had not made an empty promise.

Speaking to University World News, the Zimbabwe National Students Union secretary-general, Tapiwanashe Chiriga, said students who were already under severe financial pressure would obviously welcome a tuition increase freeze in 2021.

“But then, an interview with the media saying fees won’t be hiked is not enough; we have seen this before. We had assurances from the minister early last year that fees were not going to be hiked but still [we] ended up having fee hikes.

“As we speak, fees for polytechnics, industrial training colleges and teachers’ colleges have already been hiked to astronomical levels,” he added.

“The ministry also needs to find ways to make education more and more accessible even during this lockdown,” said Chiriga.

On average, a Zimbabwean undergraduate university student is currently paying about ZW$20,000, equivalent to about US$200 per semester.

Fees hikes of up to ZW$80,000 (US$800), which were being proposed by universities, would have likely triggered fresh protests from students as the average civil servant in Zimbabwe earns about ZW$18,000 (US$180) a month.

The majority of the populace rely on the informal sector, which has been closed in the government’s attempts to curb the spread of the coronavirus. So far, COVID-19 has been responsible for about 32,000 infections and just over 1,000 deaths in the country.

Government invests in high-tech servers

Murwira also revealed that the government has secured five high-tech servers to improve online learning across Zimbabwe’s higher learning institutions.

“We also bought five high-tech servers last year in a bid to achieve online learning for our institutions. These will be shared and, as the year progresses, we are expecting to add five more to bring stability to our institutions,” he said.

The minister tasked all state institutions with developing their own ICT learning systems to reduce the fee burden on students who will generally have to continue with online learning.

He said: “To support the efforts of the ministry, all the universities have been directed to set aside an average budget of ZW$25 million (US$250,000) which will go towards the development and enhancement of ICT systems.

“We are going into the new reality of online learning, hence the need to move with the required speed.”

Note: The US dollar figures were calculated using an average estimated exchange rate of US$1:ZWL$100. This is not the official exchange rate, but an average of the black market rate and the interbank or official rate. The official rate may be used by the government and banks, but ordinary Zimbabweans rely on the alternative rate for currency calculations.