Red tape, tepid political will hamper starting private HEIs

Exorbitant tuition fees are the biggest challenge facing students at higher education institutions in Zimbabwe, a study that traced the various stages involved in registering, licensing and accrediting a private higher education institution in the country, found.

Several other challenges are also plaguing higher education institutions in Zimbabwe.

The study made reference to a 500%-1,000% spike in tuition fees at the University of Zimbabwe which resulted in flash student demonstrations in September 2022 as indicative of the extent of the problem that has been simmering on the ground. It also pointed out similar trends in tuition increases at other public institutions such as the Midlands State University, Great Zimbabwe University, and the National University of Science and Technology.

The fee hikes, according to the study, were implemented despite resistance from students and hard-pressed parents.

The results of the study were published as a chapter titled, ‘The perils and promises of private higher education in Zimbabwe: The case of developing an online university in Zimbabwe’, written by Professor Blessing Mukabeta Maumbe, deputy vice-chancellor and acting vice-chancellor of Unicaf University in Zimbabwe.

The chapter appears in the open-access volume Higher education – Reflections from the field edited by Dr Lee Waller and Dr Sharon Waller and published by IntechOpen.

Financial troubles caused drop-out

At the time of the study, the average salary for a school teacher in Zimbabwe reportedly stood at US$100 a month, which leaves a public servant with no disposable income to cater for school or college fees.

Most workers in the country are also struggling with one of the highest inflation rates in the world which are eroding household incomes and making it difficult for students to afford a university education. Consumer inflation in Zimbabwe stood at 87.6% in March 2023, according to Trading Economics data.

Students are also struggling to pay for accommodation, food, and health insurance, which situation is forcing them to drop out of university.

The enormous decline in enrolment numbers across both public and private universities and community colleges dubbed ‘the great enrolment cliff’ was also cited as a major challenge in the study.

According to a 2020 World Bank report, Zimbabwe’s 8.5% tertiary enrolment rate lags far behind that of regional leaders like Botswana (23.4%), and South Africa (20.5%). The onset of COVID-19 accelerated the rapid decline in student enrolment and made an already bad situation worse.

Additionally, drop-out rates are high, correlating with the high tuition fees as the main reason. The study could not provide specific numbers in enrolment declines attributed to the pandemic but claimed anecdotal evidence shows that most students failed to attend classes at universities during the COVID-19 peak.

Few STEM resources

Low information and communication technology (ICT) penetration in Zimbabwe is another major challenge facing higher education institutions in the country as internet access in rural areas and some urban towns remains intermittent.

This is disturbing, considering that, in the modern knowledge society, digital access is not a nice-to-have, but a must-have – in the same league as utilities such as electricity and water.

The affordability of gadgets such as computers is also interfering with access to quality online higher education, according to the study. Zimbabwe’s internet penetration was 34.8% at the beginning of 2023, according to DataReportal statistics.

The study also confirmed deficiencies in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) sector in Zimbabwe. This was first pointed out by the National Skills Audit Report of 2019 which identified major gaps in this area.

The deficiencies manifest themselves in an acute shortage of academic staff, laboratories and workshops, and related specialised facilities to support teaching and learning in STEM programmes, especially in public universities.

Other challenges highlighted in the research are specific to Unicaf University Zimbabwe, or Unicaf, the private institution used as a case in the study.

Unicaf was granted an investment licence by the Zimbabwe Investment Agency in 2018 which was later renewed by the Zimbabwe Investment and Development Agency in 2022. The investment licence allowed Unicaf to operate and set up facilities that are required to launch a functional university in Zimbabwe.

But Unicaf’s establishment and operation efforts were hampered by a lack of political support, red tape in institutional and academic programme accreditation, legal challenges in institutional accreditation, negative publicity from the local higher education regulator, and a lack of land on which to build the university campus.

Maumbe told University World News that, without the necessary political and social capital, meeting eligibility criteria for investment deals in an African country such as Zimbabwe may be necessary but is insufficient to pave the way for the successful completion of the investment deals.

Delays cause partners to pull out

“What is even more troubling is the fact that strings that are attached by these dubious political actors or people with influence are often invisible. What you experience are the negative outcomes and delays that cannot be explained rationally or attributed to the rules and regulations affecting doing business in the country,” Maumbe said.

He also expressed dismay at the Zimbabwe Council for Higher Education, or ZIMCHE, the local higher education regulator, that published a notice stating that Unicaf University Zimbabwe was not a registered institution and that it was not allowed to serve as a recruiting agent for foreign universities at the end of 2022.

“The notice resulted in a fallout which led to litigation with Unicaf University Zimbabwe contesting the intentions of the national regulator in placing the advertisement in the press knowing full well that Unicaf was in the process of applying for the renewal of its provisional registration licence.”

He said that an assessment of the damage done by that negative publicity had not been completed yet but some private partners had already withdrawn from negotiations to establish memoranda of understanding with Unicaf without providing any clear reasons. ZIMCHE did not respond to questions from University World News about this matter.

Despite the challenges, Maumbe said that the university has achieved milestones, including a review of its 28 academic programmes by local experts, aligning its academic programme curricula to the government’s Heritage-Based Education 5.0 of the Zimbabwe Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science, Innovation and Technology Development.

Unicaf has also forged strategic partnerships with a number of business and higher education partners.

Unicaf was granted an investment licence by the Zimbabwe Investment Agency in 2018 which was later renewed by the Zimbabwe Investment Development Agency in 2022. The investment licence allowed Unicaf to operate and set up facilities that are required to launch a functional university in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe currently has 21 accredited universities, of which 14 are state-owned. Private universities are owned mostly by churches and international entities.