Envy of Africa falls into crisis

June 30, 2000

Once the envy of its neighbours, Zambia's tertiary education sector is now in the midst of a severe crisis that threatens to undermine chances of equitable social and economic development. Improvements to its ailing universities are planned, but may yet be scuppered by political interference.

Legislation introduced last year is widely seen as retrograde because it undermines the autonomy of universities by centralising power in the education minister. Under-funding, administrative mismanagement and a lack of vision in Zambia's political class and international donor community have debilitated the sector, thwarting expansion, damaging the quality of teaching and rapidly eroding the skills base.

The University of Zambia in Lusaka and the Copperbelt University in Kitwe receive 23 per cent of a meagre education budget of about 2 per cent of gross national product, compared with 6 per cent in most other countries in the region. Unlike other African states, such as Kenya, there is no authority with overall responsibility for higher education.

Successive governments have continued to pay students' fees, housing and meal allowances, despite a serious decline in the economy that began when oil prices rocketed and prices of the main export, copper, collapsed in the 1970s.

For the past two academic years the government has paid 75 per cent of university fees for at least 90 per cent of the student body. It remains reluctant to charge "economic" fees and to introduce the comprehensive cost-sharing schemes that were recommended in a 1997 inquiry.

Fees for the university in Lusaka range from 2 million kwacha (Pounds 440) to 3 million kwacha. To cover operating costs, they should increase to between 18 and 30 million kwacha, says the university council. Payments are often late and under budget, leaving institutions to operate in perilous conditions. The university received only 1.1 billion kwacha (out of a 1.4 billion kwacha budget) for the current academic year and creditors are owed 33 billion kwacha.

Closures and strikes by students, lecturers and support staff have plagued universities in recent years, resulting in the loss of at least two academic years for students. The university in Lusaka has been run by a caretaker administration for the past three years, following the ousting of vice-chancellor Andrew Siwela and his managers amid accusations of incompetence and corruption.

The university drew up a four-year strategic plan in 1999 emphasising distance learning using information technology, consultancy services to industry, re-establishing donor confidence, offering a pragmatic curriculum alongside academic courses and strengthening postgraduate courses. But this cannot be implemented until approved by a full university council, which has yet to be put in place.

From August, the university will make the overriding entry requirement the ability to pay fees by a certain date.

Staff development and research have been the biggest casualties of the crisis. Research is almost non-existent. Staffing levels declined rapidly after 1994, when the intellectual class finally lost confidence in the government.

The University of Zambia was at the forefront of the move by African universities to establish internet service providers. The law school is one of the few in Africa to provide a legal resources website, and in August will be the first to introduce an evening, modular programme.

This will meet a rising demand for legal education, help to reduce the shortage of lawyers in the country and provide an incentive for underpaid staff to remain in higher education.

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