Things fell apart but centre holds hope for Zimbabwe's students

Refugee scholars support beleaguered university via virtual learning hub. Matthew Reisz writes

August 23, 2012

One Friday in June, Laura Broadhurst sat in a studio in central London that was linked by satellite to the University of Zimbabwe.

She was there to take part remotely in the official launch of a new 200-seat virtual learning centre that she hoped would "support the resurgence of Zimbabwe's higher education sector as a beacon in southern Africa".

A central goal of the initiative is to enable academics in the Zimbabwean diaspora to support the university's College of Health Sciences and its faculties of science and veterinary science, all struggling with a lack of teaching staff as the country's higher education system buckles under the weight of Zimbabwe's political and economic problems.

Broadhurst is Zimbabwe programme manager at the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (Cara). Established as the Academic Assistance Council in 1933, the organisation was designed to aid academics targeted by the Nazis to find work and build new lives in Britain.

By a strange coincidence, its first general secretary, Sir Walter Adams, went on to serve as vice-chancellor of what is now the University of Zimbabwe from 1955 to 1967.

Developing this initial purpose over close to 80 years, Cara and its predecessors have now given support on British soil to more than 9,000 academics and their families, displaced by persecution and political upheavals from countries ranging from Argentina, Burma and Cambodia to Sudan, Uganda and Vietnam.

In the recent Iraq programme, however, there has been an additional objective: using diaspora enthusiasm and expertise to help rebuild higher education capacity within Iraq. The Zimbabwe programme has adopted a similar approach.

Squalid conditions

There is little dispute about the scale of the problem. "Zimbabwe's higher education is in shambles," Tabitha Mutenga wrote earlier this month in the Harare-based weekly newspaper The Financial Gazette.

"The country's education system has not been immune to the tense political situation and harsh socio-economic conditions that prevailed for over a decade. The once revered education system is now a shadow of its former self.

"Many schools and institutions of higher learning have not been operating at full capacity for years, depriving millions of students of their right to quality education."

The same article also pointed to cases of impoverished students living up to 10 to a room "in repugnant, squalid and insalubrious conditions" or turning to prostitution, leading to inevitable increases in the number of unsafe abortions and HIV/Aids cases.

Similar conclusions were reached by a 2010 consultation project that Cara carried out with the International Organization for Migration, in partnership with the UK-based Zimbabwe Diaspora Development Interface (ZDDI) and the Britain Zimbabwe Society.

Its aim was "to listen to the needs of academics on the ground in order to form a responsive and effective programme" for supporting higher education in Zimbabwe.

There were three meetings in Harare, Gweru and Bulawayo, bringing together about 200 academics and higher education professionals. The issues raised were then discussed in three further meetings, largely of diaspora Zimbabweans, consisting of 40 delegates in London and 100 in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

The project's report, CARA/IOM Zimbabwe Higher Education Initiative Consultation Findings, offered a bleak picture of the state of Zimbabwean higher education together with many suggestions for constructive intervention.

"Heightened fees for both tuition and accommodation", payable in US dollars (used as Zimbabwe's currency since 2009 in an attempt to halt runaway inflation), had led to "huge dropouts and students forced to defer" at the start of the 2009 academic year.

A longer-term malaise was the "gross underfunding of institutions by the government since the 1990s", which translated into "insufficient funds to buy up-to-date teaching and learning materials, equipment and resources, to update technology and curricula".

Science students in Bulawayo, for example, had to travel 430km to Harare if they wanted to see a laser in action. Lack of money had also caused "severe staff shortages" and a "brain drain".

Cara had itself noticed "an alarming increase in the number of Zimbabwean refugee academics seeking assistance. In 2009, 17 per cent of grant applications and the majority of new enquiries were from Zimbabweans". And a recent report by the country's Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Higher Education, Science and Technology pointed to a total absence of lecturers, for example, in the University of Zimbabwe's departments of animal science, community medicine, metallurgy and clinical pharmacology.

Shortages were almost as acute in other branches of medicine as well as mining engineering, computer and veterinary sciences.

Alex Magaisa, chairman of the ZDDI, who opened each of the six consultation meetings, had noted that "many successful Zimbabweans at home and abroad were beneficiaries of the once prestigious higher education system" and that this meant they had "a moral obligation to assist in rebuilding the education sector for the benefit of future generations".

The diaspora communities responded with a range of suggestions for improving the financial stability of universities, plugging their physical and human resource gaps, and building links with other institutions.

Cara has been able to take some of these ideas forward in partnership with Econet Wireless - a company set up by a Zimbabwean and based in South Africa - by creating the virtual learning centre in what used to be the University of Zimbabwe's anatomy lecture hall.

The opening ceremony included fervent speeches in praise of Jesus and congratulations to Broadhurst on her recent marriage, but it also made clear the vast educational opportunities being opened up for Zimbabwean students in fields dogged by staff shortages and inadequate facilities.

Aspiring doctors

These opportunities should start to come through during the autumn term. The most important initial partner is King's College London.

Lectures on anatomy and physiology in King's main medical lecture hall, for example, will be streamed simultaneously into Zimbabwe, at no cost to the latter institution or its students.

Students at the University of Zimbabwe can also access the virtual campus and resources such as slides, case studies, real-life scenarios and questions and answers.

In the future, there should also be opportunities for two-way discussions about the treatment of particular diseases, which should benefit aspiring doctors in the UK as well as in Zimbabwe.

Starting in September, there will be similar links with the School of Dentistry at Queen Mary, University of London; the University at Buffalo - State University of New York (for courses in pharmacy); the University of Pretoria's Faculty of Veterinary Science; and Unesco-IHE (Institute for Water Education) in the Netherlands.

"We are concerned with filling gaps, not taking over," stresses Broadhurst. "UZ continues to have responsibility for creating syllabuses, setting exams, marking and so on."

Further support for Zimbabwe's frail university sector should come from the many diaspora academics in the UK, southern Africa and elsewhere who are keen to remain in touch and "give something back", whether or not they have yet found positions in their new countries.

Provided the relevant deans of faculty agree, Cara can supply them with IP addresses to deliver lectures straight from their laptops at home.

Longer-term plans include further links with other Commonwealth, and particularly southern African, universities, as well as renting out the facilities of the learning centre to generate income.

If all goes well, Broadhurst says, she also looks forward to "the installation of a roaming unit that would enable lectures and seminars to be streamed into hospitals and labs to facilitate e-health and e-learning simultaneously".

The University of Zimbabwe houses the country's only - desperately understaffed - Faculty of Veterinary Science. In a country where agriculture is crucial, it needs all the support it can get.

Helping to set Zimbabwe's universities back on their feet will allow them to spread social and economic benefits well beyond their campuses.

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