By Leroy Dzenga
Zimbabwe had a fairly eventful year in higher and tertiary education where the focus was on bridging the gap between the classroom and industry.
Measures were taken to ensure there was a break from the past where deliverables were trapped in mantras and rhetoric.
It was in a way a historic year for Zimbabwean education as there were a few signs that the talk may finally be walked in terms of bringing systematic adjustments to an education system desperately in need for recalibration.
2019 was the year Zimbabwe launched its innovation hubs.
These are centres dedicated to converting academic knowledge into adoptable products through research and development.
Treasury in 2019 released $26 million which was used to finance the design and construction of the innovation hubs.
The hubs have since been opened at the University of Zimbabwe (UZ), National University of Science and Technology (NUST), Midlands State University (MSU).
Construction is at an advanced stage at other State universities including the Zimbabwe National Defence University, Great Zimbabwe University and Chinhoyi University of Technology, among others.
It is now imperative for institutions to justify the existence of these hubs by ensuring that the market in Zimbabwe gets new products from them.
With innovation hubs, Zimbabwe joins countries like Eswatini, Rwanda and South Africa, who are operationalising similar concepts.
Going into 2020, all eyes will be on these innovation hubs to see if they can significantly repay the investment made by Treasury.
There had been concerns with the lack of harmony between content in similar disciplines.
Course contents at different universities were miles apart. The year 2019 saw the beginning of efforts to introduce cohesion.
“We wanted to make it easy for students to be able to transfer from institutions if they felt like it. We are in the process of ensuring 70 percent of what is taught in a marketing degree at CUT, for instance, will be the same across State universities, except for the smaller percentage covering the niche which the university specialises in,” Higher and Tertiary Education, Innovation, Science and Technology Development Minister Professor Amon Murwira told The Herald.
This means students are now able to transfer from universities, a process which was previously complex because of intricate differences in subject content.
At State universities, this is ideal as it gives flexibility to students who may want to change institutions.
Circumstances in life differ; at no point should students feel trapped at institutions even when staying enrolled puts them in a difficult position, especially relating to finances.
It also helps with the cross-pollination of resources and personnel in studies. We may begin to see universities pooling resources to do joint researches because the scope has been delimited to identifiable confines.
Zimbabwe is pursuing Education 5.0 which is a transformative approach to education that widens the space a university occupies.
Before 2017, Zimbabwe had Education 3.0 which had only teaching, research and community service as the main components.
The appointment of Professor Amon Murwira as the man in charge prompted the expansion of areas of focus in higher and tertiary education.
The higher education policy has expended to innovation and industrialisation, adding to the three pre-existing conventions of any higher education curriculum.
There was realisation that the goalss of this new formula may not be realised fully if there is no coordination between those presiding over primary and secondary education, and those leading policy in higher and tertiary education.
In 2019 the ministries of Primary and Secondary Education and Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development worked on a plan to ensure their relatively new approaches speak to each other.
There has been a series of inter-ministerial workshops aimed at creating a more concrete document aimed at unifying education concepts in primary, secondary and tertiary institutions.
This initiative is iconic as it ensures that students who go through the Zimbabwean education system have a uniform philosophy where knowledge gained has to impact industry.
Both ministries are pushing new ideas in the Competence-Based Curriculum also known as the New Curriculum (primary and secondary) and Education 5.0 (tertiary).
They used 2019 as a year to forge a uniform sense of direction in Zimbabwe’s education.
Fees hike conundrum
Despite the skyrocketing cost of living in Zimbabwe, across the board, Government ensured that fees stay within reach of many Zimbabweans.
This was in line with the austerity policy which was being pursued by Treasury through the Transitional Stabilisation Programme (TSP).
Professor Murwira explained why the fees remained unchanged even when it appeared uneconomic to do so.
Next year promises to be different as there are imminent adjustments.
“As you know, we have not increased fees this year because of Government’s austerity policy and now that we are moving from it, there is going to be an increase.
“But it will be communicated properly. People will not find out through the grapevine,” he said.
Presently, fees at State universities are between $500 and $1 000 for undergraduate programmes.
For master’s programmes students are paying between $1 500 and $3 000.
This is less than 1 000 percent of what the money was worth two years ago.
Trailblazing Great Zimbabwe University
In the same year, some Zimbabwean students smashed the glass ceiling and raised the country’s flag high.
Perhaps the most recent is Great Zimbabwe University through its Herbert Chitepo Law School.
The trio of Makomborero Muropa, Ashley Muza and Kundiso Rusike engraved the country’s name on the pedestal of history when they won the All Africa International Humanitarian Law Moot Court in Arusha, Tanzania.
A moot court is a mock court where students argue as if they are in a real court of law, applying what they hve lerned in class to real-life situations presented hypothetically.
Earlier, in February 2019, GZU was the runner-up at the African regional rounds of the Price Media Law Moot Court Competition in Johannesburg, South Africa.
In April, they came 19th out of 700 law schools from all over the world at the Phillip C Jessup Moot Court Competition.
But the year was not without questions of their own in our education.
There was an increase in the number of college students who committed suicide.
Throughout the year, there were cases of promising young Zimbabweans who did not get the requisite support in their time of need ended their lives.
This increased calls for improved psychosocial services at institutions across the country.
Maybe in 2020, there will be better systems in place, and we will wake up to better headlines.
Opaque grants system
Over the years, Government has been announcing grants and student loans, but the uptake is not encouraging.
The reason being the information asymmetry and the messaging crisis around the whole structure.
Some who are nostalgic thought this was the return of the 1990s grants which were paid to university students to assist with their upkeep.
What Government is proposing are loans meant to help students who are struggling with tuition fees.
However, the idea never really took off.
Said Prof Murwira in July: “We are trying to improve access to higher and tertiary education. This is a loan which must be paid back to enable the sustainability of the critical intervention.
“If assessed and approved, the beneficiaries will pay as they go. The payments will differ according to beneficiaries’ capacity. The system will be tailor-made to the capability of the individual. Sincerity was a challenge; we are sincere. People should own the country and take care of it; facilities that ensure higher and tertiary education then become an opportunity to prosper.”
Despite promises of a streamlined process in applying for these loans, there has been very little movement on the uptake.
It remains very low.
Maybe in 2020 there will be improvement, but 2019 was a forgettable year as far as student loans are concerned.
Going into 2020, Zimbabwe must reflect on the quality of research being carried out at institutions.
There appears to be thinning due diligence in academia, as the mass production of graduates has overtaken the need for quality scholarship.
There is need for introspection in 2020 to ensure the human resources the country has continue to be useful to the national goal.