Church to set up multi-campus university in Matabeleland

A Zimbabwean church is setting up a private university that will have several rural campuses in the country’s Matabeleland region.

The institution, expected to open in August 2023, will be named the University of Matopo, in the vicinity of the world-famous Matobo National Park and where, in the Matopo Hills, the imperialist mining magnate and politician Cecil John Rhodes is buried.

The Brethren in Christ Church, which originated in the United States, and which sent missionaries to Zimbabwe in 1898, set up their first station in Africa in Matopo, giving rise to the name of the university. In the past, the church had a teachers training college which was transferred to the government in 1960.

The university will be a multi-campus institution with sites in Matopo, Mtshabezi and Wanezi, all in the country’s Matabeleland South province where missionaries first set up stations.

It is expected to start with about 400 students, but growth is envisaged to be able to accommodate a few thousand students in future, said Professor Henry Sibanda, the chairperson of the University of Matopo Trust (UMT), who did his secondary school studies at the Matopo Mission in the early 1970s.

He told University World News the church already owns some schools that go up to advanced level (after about 15 years of education, starting at early childhood development level), but now wants to provide a pathway to higher education.

Sibanda said staffing the university will not be an issue as the church has members who are professors teaching in Zimbabwe as well as in South Africa, Canada and the United Kingdom, among other countries, who have expressed interest in coming back home and lecturing at the institution.

According to Sibanda, the niche of the university will be dryland environmental management, since all its missions where it intends to have campuses are situated in semi-arid country.

“We want to look at the management of the dryland environment so that people can derive livelihoods in a better manner.

“We will have faculties that will deal with that. For example, in the sciences, we have a faculty on climate change. We will [also] have a faculty of agriculture ... and then we will have the traditional faculties [that universities usually have],” said Sibanda.

He said that, in the late 1980s, the Old Students Association of Matopo came up with the idea of starting the university. In 2000, the University of Matopo Trust was registered, but the project suffered a setback with rising inflation wiping out savings.

The church has now resuscitated the project and, to show how serious it is about taking the plan forward, it has designated the last Sunday in January of each year as University Day.

This January’s last Sunday, which fell on the 29th, was used as the launch date for the Matopo University as well as the UMT Endowment Fund initially set at US$41 million.

Sibanda said they are looking forward to the church’s continued financial support, especially in its formative years.

“What must be understood is that universities are not run from student fees [only]. There are a lot more costs that will overrun [income from] student fees – especially at the onset.

“The money will build increase as the numbers of students go up, but the university will still have to have different funding [or income streams] to keep it going,” said Sibanda.