Zim students ask court to suspend hike in tuition fees

Students at the University of Zimbabwe (UZ), with the assistance of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), have filed an urgent court application at the High Court for an order compelling the institution to suspend a hike in tuition fees.

In their application, the students argue that the increase is grossly unreasonable, irrational and it was done outside the provisions of the UZ Act.

Students say their parents and guardians mostly work in the informal sector as vendors, peasant farmers, cross-border traders or teachers and, hence, cannot afford to pay the new fees.

Although the UZ appeared to reconsider the hike, the urgent application was, nevertheless, filed on 15 September on behalf of UZ students by ZLHR member, advocate Tendai Biti.

Biti, who is also the vice president of Zimbabwe’s newly established opposition party the Citizens Coalition for Change, is a former finance minister and current Harare East member of parliament. He had earlier supported the students’ cause by posting on Twitter that the fee increase was unjustifiable.

“The massive tuition fee increases at the University of Zimbabwe are irrational and unlawful. Asking parents to fork out US$1,300 per semester for tuition alone is ridiculous,” he wrote.

“More so, when UZ received an additional ZWL4.5 billion in the Supplementary Budget to take the total to ZWL7.9 billion (US$7.5 million),” Biti wrote in a Twitter thread.

The court application follows protest action against the increases on 12 September, as reported by University World News.

The Zimbabwe Republic Police then arrested and detained 14 people on charges of participating in the protest, while another five UZ students were arrested the following day on similar charges.

Twelve of the first 14 people arrested were released on Tuesday after paying admission-of-guilt fines for disorderly conduct, while the other two, along with the five arrested on 14 September, were later released on bail.

The latter seven will appear back in court on 29 September.

Students take a stand

The UZ Students’ Representative Council (SRC) had hinted at an impending court challenge when they addressed the media on 13 September. “One of the remedies that the students have chosen is to do a demonstration, and as the SRC, we are also going to take the legal channel and challenge in court this irrational decision that has been made by the vice-chancellor, together with the other executive members of this institution,” UZ SRC President Allan Chipoyi said at a press briefing.

“We want to see a swift move by the University of Zimbabwe administration to denounce the new fee structure with immediate effect. We want the administration to open a platform for dialogue with the SRC so that the fees can be revised downwards. We are proposing an amount below 200,000 Zimbabwean dollars,” Chipoyi added.

Besides the court challenge, UZ students have also petitioned the Parliament of Zimbabwe, seeking its intervention over the fees hike. In the petition, the students said the fees were inconsiderate, and begged parliament to intervene immediately.

In its weekly report, the Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development said the fees hike “scintillates education inequality, elitism and a lack of robust and inclusive consultative forums”.

“The fees hike makes higher and tertiary education a privilege of the minority, the rich and politically connected. For a country that has more than half of its population living in extreme poverty, expecting students to afford the new fees is unjust,” the report says.

The Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition also said it stood in solidarity with students and that the government must urgently bring back student grants as a move towards free education.

“As the students speak out against fee hikes, we stand in firm solidarity with them; their fight for quality, affordable and accessible education is a worthy cause, and they deserve the support of every progressive Zimbabwean,” it said.

Minister defends the fee hike

Professor Amon Murwira, Zimbabwe’s minister of higher and tertiary education, defended the fees hike at UZ and said local tertiary institutions’ fees were too low.

“If only we could compare Zimbabwe with [the rest of] Southern Africa, we have a relatively lower level of fees. I am avoiding saying the word ‘cheap’ because we are subsidising higher education,” Murwira said at a press conference on 15 September as he welcomed a Russian Federation delegation that was set to tour Zimbabwe’s tertiary institutions.

“If we were not subsiding [higher education], [the fees] would be around US$10,000. The issue with the UZ is that they met on 18 August and they agreed on the fees that they are going to charge. Let’s separate politics [from] education. We are not going to entertain that,” Murwira said.

However, as late as 2 September, Murwira had said that fees for all undergraduate students at state institutions would remain unchanged for the time being. “Universities have not hiked any fees. We have not yet signed the ordinance which gives rise to the new fees structure,” he had told parliament.

Following the protests that erupted on Monday, the UZ said it was now revising the announced hike. In an interview with The Herald, UZ Vice-Chancellor Professor Paul Mapfumo said the university urged students to remain calm as the administration was seeking to reach common ground with the student representative body and other key stakeholders.