By Sifelani Tsiko
Professor Amon Murwira, the country’s Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development Minister, is an engaging personality who uses language to critically and effectively communicate his ideas. At the All Stakeholder Workshop on Developing an Institutional Framework for Internationalisation of Higher and Tertiary Education in Zimbabwe, which was held week, I saw first first hand his rare ability to articulate complex ideas in research and how they could help transform the country.
His presentation was professional, brilliant, skilful and forensic.
It was quite engaging and stimulating.
Renowned scholar and distinguished Zimbabwean historian Professor Ngwabi Bhebe tipped his hat in great respect of Prof Murwira’s presentation.
“I can’t add anything more, otherwise I will spoil his great and inspiring speech,” he remarked.
Prof Murwira touched on a wide range of issues on higher education, providing new viewpoints on how this sector could drive the attainment of the country’s 2030 vision that aims to make Zimbabwe a middle-income economy by 2030.
His presentation was full of new ways of looking at things in the higher education sector.
He demonstrated how increasing public engagement plays an increasing role in articulating the results of research and also in gaining feedback of research objectives.
He expressed concern on why Zimbabwe and most African countries still lag woefully behind the rest of the world in generating new scientific knowledge that could easily transform their economies.
Zimbabwe and Africa’s research outputs are still an embarrassing 1 percent of the world’s research output, yet we are a continent home to around 16 percent of the world’s population.
These are painful admissions to make as Zimbabwe explores how research can contribute to the attainment of the country’s 2030 vision.
“We can’t have a professor that puts on a gown when they are not learned inside,” he said.
“We are trying to provide the space for growth and promote our national vision. We dare to think differently, carefully but fast . . . We dare think fast and effectively.
“We want to get things done – less talk and more action. In doing this, we want to construct the future that we want and we want to get the future that we want.”
He expressed concern that while Zimbabwe has a high literacy rate of 94 percent, its skills level are at 38 percent.
Zimbabwe, he said, has an acute skills shortage in the engineering and technology, natural and applied sciences, medical and health sciences as well as the agricultural sectors.
The country, he said, had a skills’ surpluses in the commerce and business, arts and humanities sectors.
“The success of our basic education system must now be translated into national competitive advantage through equipping graduates that pass through our higher and tertiary education system with more relevant modern skills for economic prosperity,” Prof Murwira said.
“For our nation to attain the vision of a middle income by 2030 and address social challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality, we must invest in relevant education, training and skills development.”
One of his main takeaway message, was that research must benefit the public and the nation as a whole.
Very often researchers are dismissed as being distanced from the real world — irrelevant and out of touch with the actual issues affecting the people. This was made worse by research work which is not tailor-made to respond to the needs of the people.
Prof Murwira said bureaucratised research and teaching must come to end and must be replaced by research outputs which can be measured, managed, and respond to the needs of local communities.
“We want to encourage our people not pursue papers but to pursue knowledge,” he said. “We want to construct a higher and tertiary education system of our dreams. We cannot boast of a high literacy when our country is full of potholes… dilapidated buildings… This is the time to introspect and move forward.
“Let’s ask ourselves what are we doing. Are we doing self -preservation or are we involved in the transformation process. Let’s do away with ‘Yellow pages’ professors.’
Despite all the problems of the past, it is heartening that Zimbabwean academics are starting to realise just how important it is to retain talent and skills that can be utilised to attain its 2030 vision.
Prof Murwira’s ministry has made great strides in promoting the right space for academic research and in pushing for investment in human capital development and building infrastructure to help Zimbabwean scientists shift the country’s economy towards becoming knowledge-based.
His ministry has already undertaken several projects and initiatives that offer hope amid all the bad news.
It has conducted a skills audit, a National Qualifications Framework, initiated an infrastructure development programme that intends to construct university or college facilities that conform to international best practices and adopted a philosophy of heritage based science and innovation.
His ministry has engaged investors to develop state of the art infrastructure for higher and tertiary institutions.
Furthermore, the ministry has started a programme to establish innovation hubs at universities and colleges while at the same time pursuing the establishment of industrial parks in various parts of the country to raise the profile of innovation, entrepreneurship as well as research and development in the country.
“Money is there but it’s just being misused,” said Prof Murwira. “We are going to channel Zimdef funds towards these activities rather than abuse the funds. Grandeur is in the promise and hope that we give to the nation. We don’t want to joke about things that threaten lives. Ignorance is life threatening.”
The minister is convinced that innovation hubs and industrial parks will foster industrialisation and modernisation to improve the quality of life of Zimbabweans.
“Our philosophy diverts from the philosophy of packaging and selling poverty to the one of selling opportunity,” Prof Murwira noted.
“In other words, we cannot package poverty because nobody buys it.
“We have a firm belief of moving Zimbabwe and Africa forward by owning it and with the firm belief that Zimbabwe and Africa’s hopes and aspirations are dependent on its people as we work among ourselves and with the rest of the world.”
These are all promising steps in the right direction. But more work and focus is needed across all the country’s 24 universities.
Such a platform as the one held recently by the ministry is important in accelerating research excellence in the country.
It offered an opportunity for Zimbabwean scientists and their collaborating partners to speak with one voice when it comes to aligning a research and development agenda for the attainment of the country’s 2030 vision.
Local scientists have been given unprecedented space by the government and with adequate funding and collaborative support they can come out with all sorts of technical breakthroughs in research.
Zimbabwe has a huge store of practical talent and it has to be harnessed to provide solutions to the country’s most pressing problems.