Victoria Falls gets its first higher learning institution

Zimbabwe has started the process of building two new universities – one in the south-eastern city of Masvingo and another in the resort city of Victoria Falls.

The two universities will increase access to higher education. The project builds on the government’s policy of having a state university in each of the country’s 10 provinces, a policy that has long been realised.

When Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain in 1980, there was only one national university, the University of Zimbabwe (formerly the University of Rhodesia). Now there are more than a dozen state-run universities and several others run by churches and private entities.

Education Mugabe’s signature policy

Despite its economic and political troubles, the country’s people are among the most educated in Africa, thanks to the early policies of its founding leader, the late president Robert Mugabe.

Mugabe, whom analysts said started well but ended his rule badly, made access to education one of his signature policies. However, some of the gains were reversed in later years due to bad governance, corruption and a lack of funding.

Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s successor and long-time lieutenant, who came into power in 2017 after the army toppled the Mugabe regime, has set the ball rolling for the construction of the two new universities. Mugabe was his mentor.

Earlier this year, Mnangagwa granted city status to Victoria Falls, a town named after the world-famous waterfalls in the area that are Zimbabwe’s prime tourist attraction. The city has no institution of higher learning.

In an interview with University World News, the Zimbabwe Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education, Innovation, Science and Technology Development, Professor Amon Murwira, said the two projects are aimed at further increasing access to university education in the country. The land for the project has already been secured.

He said a university in southern Masvingo will be built near the Tokwe Mukorsi Dam. Four universities are working on the new institution’s master plan. These are the University of Zimbabwe (taking the lead), the National University of Science and Technology, the Midlands State University and Great Zimbabwe University.

The Tokwe Mukorsi Dam, a reservoir with a capacity of 1.8 billion cubic metres, is the largest interior water body in Zimbabwe and was commissioned in May 2017.

“We are trying to improve access to higher education. The university in Masvingo will be a multidisciplinary university, anchored in research and innovation,” Murwira said.

“Under the second republic (Mnangagwa’s administration), there will be institutions of higher learning at places of national interest. This is to ensure that Zimbabwe has a knowledge-driven economy,” he added.

New universities ‘a bad idea’

Dr Ricky Mukonza, a Zimbabwe-born academic based at South Africa’s Tshwane University of Technology, told World University News earlier in 2020 that, given Zimbabwe’s present economic challenges, it was not a good idea to start new university construction projects in the country.

He said that, with so many universities struggling to operate optimally, money earmarked to construct a university could have been better deployed to support existing institutions.

At this stage, lecturers at Zimbabwe’s teachers’ colleges and polytechnics are reporting for duty only twice a week, saying they are incapacitated to go to work every day due to low salaries.

The government’s decision last year to close institutions of higher learning to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and turn some into quarantine centres to house people returning from other countries, exposed infrastructure decay at the institutions. For example, returnees from the UK protested against being kept at Belvedere Technical Teachers’ College, saying there was no running water.

A Zimbabwean returnee wrote a letter published in local newspapers saying the institution of higher learning was not fit for human habitation.

“Hundreds of desperate college students living in shanty facilities such as Belvedere with no complaints doesn’t make it a habitable place,” the letter reads.

“That other citizens returning via Plumtree and Beitbridge ports of entry have equally been treated shabbily doesn’t make it right, and doesn’t indicate at all that the government of Zimbabwe cares about its citizens,” it continues.

“If this treatment of citizens by Zimbabwean authorities has anything to show, it is that authorities who have presided over poor infrastructure, including hospitals, do not care at all about protecting its citizens from COVID-19,” the returnee wrote.

“When we arrived at Belvedere, we thought authorities had already assessed the place and certified it as habitable.

“We had no expectations of anything flashy, given the fact that this is a temporary quarantine facility in an emergency situation, but we also didn’t expect that we would be thrown in a place which doesn’t have basic amenities, such as running water.”