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State universities gone to the dogs

By Tawanda Majoni

There was a time when it was very prestigious to study at the University of Zimbabwe – but not anymore.

Tawanda Majoni
Tawanda Majoni

In the old days, you would get heads turning in the streets for being associated with that learning institution. Standards were high and there was a lot of professionalism. Even after other state universities were set up, it still felt good to be at college.

Today, all our universities have virtually gone to the dogs. This is due to many factors, but the biggest ones are political. With the introduction of more universities, there was improved access to degree qualifications.

Unfortunately, the job market did not match the increasing number of graduates. This, naturally, led to disillusionment. Increasingly, people started questioning the wisdom of spending three, four or more years earning a degree which one would have to shelve immediately after graduating.

This was particularly in the 90s, when the economy started slowing down as Zanu (PF)’s patronage system and corruption accelerated. The trend spilled over into the new millennium, when the economic meltdown worsened sharply after the land grab and it became more gainful to drop out from school and become a “money changer” on the black market rather than proceed to university to earn a worthless degree. Some called that worthlessness “eduflation”.

The economic crisis negatively affected the quality of university graduates. Most of the competent lecturers left the country for greener pastures, leaving only a skeletal teaching staff. Those that remained would most of the time keep away from the lecture rooms because they did not have money for transport. The higher learning institutions faced critical operational challenges, sometimes failing to raise money to buy basic stationery.

There was no water or food in the dining halls and students were forced to stay away from the campuses. As a result, they could not obtain quality education and most of those that graduated during this period did so out of official clemency extended by university management. Semesters would sometimes be completed in a mere two weeks.

The economic crisis coincided with acute political strife that fatally compromised the state-run universities. As President Robert Mugabe fought to preserve his political power base, he increasingly turned to government institutions. He needed as much backing and support as he could get to bolster his hold on power and university vice chancellors were a natural port of call. Thus, all the vice chancellors we have today were chosen for their allegiance to Mugabe and Zanu (PF). Not only that. Even pro-vice chancellors, registrars and faculty and department heads were appointed or removed along political lines.

Once the top management at these tertiary institutions was in the bag, the real rot began. It became difficult for lecturers to think or talk with much independence or freedom. If you go to these universities today, you would not be able to tell the difference between them and the now defunct Border Gezi youth militia training camps.

There remain a few lecturers and staffers who are rebellious, but they talk only in muffled tones. They are queasy even to discuss anything about their institutions on the phone because they suspect they have been bugged. You have to meet them in the far corner of a pub or in a car with rolled up windows.

The political patronage at the universities has given rise to all-pervading corruption and duplicity. Political bigwigs are getting degrees without a clue of what they are graduating with. Some of them are getting doctoral degrees even though they cannot even explain what the words “theory” and research mean.

I doubt, for instance, that Grace Mugabe, who graduated with a PhD last week, did anything to earn it. Insiders insist she registered for the doctorate less than two months ago. Not even a super genius can complete and defend his or her doctoral thesis after a couple of months of research. I am struck by the coincidence that she got the doctorate just as she entered high level politics in Zanu (PF).

Furthermore, we never heard the talkative Grace mention anything about her doctoral studies. She has been bragging that she is a bouncer for hire, that her daughter was a virgin, that she was doing lots of charity work and bored us ad nauseum about how her husband was good and principled and poor. Why did she not tell us about her studies, considering that would have gained her a lot of self-serving marks?

She is just a drop in the lake, of course. There are many other murmurings about other top political officials who only set their feet on state university campuses for the first when they went to be capped. They cannot tell the difference between a library and a hotel lobby.

In fact, I have been told that one of the doctoral graduands last Friday also failed his studies. He carried out “research” on the Mbire people of Mashonaland Central, had his thesis counter-marked by an external examiner and failed. However, that was reversed and he was awarded the degree because the external examiner is a white man who should know nothing about the Mbire people!

All these things have generated a very bad perception about our universities which used to be shining beacons. What a shame! The Zimbabwean

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