Open letter to Higher Education ministry
It was with much interest that I recently read an article in the Financial Gazette where the permanent secretary of Higher and Tertiary Education ministry Dr Desire Mutize Sibanda was reported as having directed all tertiary institutions to set up industrial parks and innovation hubs.
Without a doubt, this is a very noble idea, as the Government of Zimbabwe strives to implement both the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal number four (SDG4) — which encompasses many different aspects of inclusive and equitable quality education — as well as the Sadc Protocol on Science, Technology and Innovation (STI).
The Sadc protocol on STI is as important as SDG4, as it is meant to foster regional co-operation and promote the development, transfer and mastery of science, technology and innovation in Sadc — with each member country supposed to commit one percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to research and development.
Most regrettably, Zimbabwe has to date — 10 years after signing the protocol — contributed absolutely nothing to this worthy endeavour! Picking up the matter further from this, and noting that preparing for the future is an intrinsic aspect of quality education, a number of questions arise from Dr Sibanda’s directive — which demand urgent answers from him and his colleagues at his ministry.
To begin with, is the government sure that the education system in Zimbabwe is ready and adequately primed for the rapidly changing world of tomorrow?
Secondly, and just as importantly, is there enough cultivation of an appetite for learning that will shape the lives of the country’s students at tertiary institutions forever?
Thirdly, had the ministry carried out a careful analysis of the available resources for quality teaching, learning and research at tertiary institutions in Zimbabwe before Dr Sibanda addressed the participants at the 2018 Edition of the Teacher Education Research Conference, where he directed tertiary institutions to set up industrial parks and innovation hubs?
All these questions demand careful consideration, if an unfortunate impression is not to be created that Dr Sibanda merely went to the conference to show that he supports the broad vision of President Emmerson Mnangagwa to grow and transform the Zimbabwean economy, notwithstanding the dire state of affairs at tertiary institutions in the country.
To be clear, I completely agree with the idea that universities and colleges are critical and strategic conduits for spearheading research and development in the country.
However, if Zimbabwe earnestly seeks to join its African counterparts in supporting research and development in the country and on the continent, there are a number of key and necessary things that the country must do to achieve this.
To begin with — and I have written on this at length in the Daily News before — it is not a good thing that the president of our country has historically also been the chancellor of all the State universities. Indeed, nowhere else on our continent, as far as I know, is this untenable situation the case.
The sad consequences of this reality is that it has a negative impact on the quality of teaching, learning and research on our institutions — as a direct result of the inherent and glaring governance deficiencies that come with this status quo.
A better model is that every one of our universities should have its own chancellor, which will result in constructive competition for the one percent of the GDP required to set up the desired industrial parks and innovation hubs that Dr Sibanda rightly called for.
Further, the massification of tertiary education in the country, without the necessary support to improve institutional infrastructure, will continue to lead to poor quality learning environments and unemployable graduates.
On that score too, I do not believe that foreign direct investment into local education is the answer to our education challenges — as Dr Sibanda suggested at the conference.
I would be most surprised if any serious outside investor were to come to Zimbabwe at this point to spend their money on an education system which is self-evidently broken and heavy at the top.
With the way that we have been managing our country for the past four decades, it is little wonder that the cynical inside and outside of Zimbabwe often point to that horror episode in the life of our nation, when senior Cabinet ministers went to Chinhoyi to ostensibly witness refined diesel gushing out of a rock — to demonstrate what a lost people that we have become!
This monumental embarrassment aside, for a nation that loves being seen as very educated, there are still many Zimbabweans who believe that the country can overcome its difficult past and establish flourishing industrial parks and innovation hubs.
But this must begin with quality education, as well as rational, consistent and sustainable decision-making by our leaders.
Prof Norman Z. Nyazema