Women’s higher education remains a priority, says academic

When Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, there were many women with a university education in the country’s leadership, but they were later replaced by populist leaders with little or no university education, according to Zimbabwean academic Dr Fay Chung.

Concern over this development pushed Chung and a colleague, Dr Hope Sadza, to establish the Women’s University in Africa (WUA), a private institution owned by the WUA board. Currently, it has 5,600 students.

Reflecting on the development of the university shortly after the observation of International Women’s Day in March, Chung told University World News that, when she and Sadza established the WUA, they felt it was essential to have more women with a university education to help leaders understand what it entails to lead the country.

Chung said it is important to have a university that specialises in improving the knowledge, skills and experience of women, both in university studies and in terms of their roles within society.

“Professor Hope Sadza and I realised that one of the characteristics of Zimbabwe 20 years after independence was that women played a much smaller role in policy- and decision-making. This was because there has been more emphasis on personalities than on policy- and decision-making.

One reason for this was that, in the early days of independence, there were many women with a university education in leadership, but they were later replaced by populist leaders with little or no university education. Women then comprised 24% of university enrolment, she said.

“University-educated women need to work closely with all women to bring about useful development. One way of doing this was to establish a women’s university which is what we decided to do in 1998, and WUA was fully established by 2005. It has had a major impact.”

Cooperation to be expanded

She said that, today in Zimbabwe, women comprise 55% of university enrolment, which is a big achievement. She said that, in addition to their studies, be it at university or on any other level, WUA specialises in developing leadership skills.

Although the women’s university has a female vice-chancellor, the fact remains that female VCs and professors are fewer than men in the same positions, just as in other leadership positions.

Chung said: “Leadership positions such as VCs and professorships depend on a number of factors, including education and training on the one hand, and actual leadership experience on the other. WUA and other important institutions enable women to achieve education, training and valuable experience,” she said. “Leadership includes many areas of knowledge, skills and experience which are important to learn and develop, and this is one of our challenges.”

Chung said WUA has students from Malawi and Zambia, as well as a lot of other African students who are stationed in Zimbabwe. It also has study centres in Malawi and Zambia linked to their universities and to WUA, and they hope to expand African cooperation in the future.

Asked to comment on criticism that a ‘women’s’ university is discriminatory, Chung said WUA allows a 15% male enrolment.

“We are very happy to have men who find our courses more relevant to their lives and work. The ratio today is 85% women and 15% men. Our courses look at the kind of work our students do, and how our courses can help them to be more efficient and practical.

“Our male students are generally older students who have found WUA’s combination of distance education while continuing with their work combined with academic study very helpful,” she explained.

Chung said gender studies are a critical part of the curriculum of all degrees the university offers.

Most new universities in Zimbabwe, including WUA, have not been able to include science and technology in their curriculum. Chung said this is because they depend mainly on fees for funding.

Private universities do not get any state funding but emphasised that there is a need for some state funding to enable private universities to provide more education and training in job creation.

War did not stop her efforts

Born in Zimbabwe in 1941, Chung, a third-generation Chinese immigrant whose grandfather emigrated to the then Rhodesia in 1904, has worked to expand access to education in Zimbabwe at primary, secondary and university levels. In the late 1980s, she was Zimbabwe’s minister of education.

Chung later worked as chief of the Education Cluster at UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund) in New York. In 1998, she founded and became the first director of UNESCO’s International Institute for Capacity Building in Africa based in Ethiopia.

Chung was educated at the University of London and Leeds University, both in the UK, and the University of Rhodesia (now the University of Zimbabwe), studying literature, education and economics as well as administration and management – an academic background that gave her a firm grounding in launching her own university.

Chung’s journey in establishing her own university was not an easy one. She joined Zimbabwe’s liberation war, leading to independence from Britain 43 years ago. Even during the time of war, her passion for education did not wane.

“Before Independence, I taught at African township schools in Rhodesia at Gweru and Mbare for about six years, before going to Leeds for my MPhil degree. At Leeds, I was fortunate to be able to teach part-time at polytechnic and university levels.

“After that, I taught at the University of Zambia from 1971-76. I joined the liberation struggle full-time from 1976-80 and was in charge of teacher education, educational research and development.

“I was in charge of training 600 teachers who taught at the Mozambique-based primary and secondary schools located in refugee camps and schools supported by the UN. These schools were not military camps but fell under ZANU [the Zimbabwe African National Union, a militant socialist organisation that fought against white-minority rule in Rhodesia],” she said.

“After independence, 12 schools were started for these children and war veterans who wanted to continue their education in Zimbabwe under the Zimbabwe Foundation for Education with Production (ZIMFEP).

ZIMFEP constructed and established 12 schools that took in students from Mozambique and Zambia where they began their studies in the 1970s. These are private schools but are well supported by the government. Some 12,000 students were enrolled in these schools in 1981. Most of them were of school age, but a few hundred were war veterans who wanted to gain agricultural and technical skills.

Women in STEM remains a challenge

Despite all her efforts, Chung is concerned that many women face unemployment after graduating. She said lack of work is a serious national problem, which affects everyone.

“It affects all areas of development. Education and training form one area of such development, and education and training have played a significant role in this area. Our education and training can certainly improve more.

“However, it is important to note that it is not only education and training that create jobs. The government, whether national, provincial or local; the private sector; family and communities; all have a role to play in developing the economy,” she said.

Chung said more women in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] fields is also a challenge. The major problems affecting STEM include insufficient teachers, lecturers and trainers on the one hand; and, on the other, a lack of institutions, laboratories and workshops for everyone, but especially for girls and women.

Chung emphasised that much more needs to be done in the areas of education, training, construction and equipment.