Due to its high national literacy rate, Zimbabwe has been often hailed for possessing an education system that other countries, particularly those on the African continent, should aspire towards.
Since the dawn of Independence, the Government has prioritised the education of its populace, something that has meant that its citizens are treasured both within and outside the confines of the country’s borders.
Last year, however, the Government decided to shift the direction of this much vaunted education system. The Government launched the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) programme, an initiative expected to lend new zest to an already flourishing education system.
The programme’s main thrust is to encourage the uptake of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. This came in light of the fact that in previous years, the country had witnessed a steady decrease of students taking up those subjects, which in turn meant that even at tertiary level students flocked to the arts and humanities instead of the under subscribed sciences.
Beginning last year, the Government, through the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development now offers free education to all pupils in public schools who register for science subjects when they enrol for A-Level. Government also pays for the full school and boarding fees of all STEM students.
The ministry also launched a multimedia outreach programme to encourage pupils who took their O-Level examinations in 2015 and attained Grade “C” or better in Mathematics, Biology, Physics and Chemistry to take a combination of the STEM subjects at A-Level.
Among other factors that the Government considered before initiating the programme was the worrying trend in higher learning that had in previous years seen the population of those with STEM qualifications stand at a paltry 0.03 percent.
With STEM, Government took a decision not to promote education for education’s sake, but instead to make sure that the country’s education system is in sync with the overall needs of the economy.
Experts have noted that the promotion of STEM subjects is essential for a country looking to revitalise its economy, as they will inevitably lead to the industrialisation and employment creation that the country badly craves.
STEM is thus a long term investment, as the Government shifts its sight to the future as today’s classrooms and lecture halls are where tomorrow’s innovators and subsequently employment creators are currently located.
At the launch of the STEM programme in February this year, President Mugabe acknowledged that the promise for an economically secure future lay in the classroom, where learners who would become key drivers of the economy in the near future were cutting their teeth.
“There is need to equip learners with knowledge skills and values that guarantees economic growth and increased opportunities for employment creation, well-rounded citizens who are relevant nationally and competitive globally,” he said then.
While it is a Zimbabwean project, the STEM programme potentially has continent-wide ripple effects, as it falls in line with President Mugabe’s ambition to see Africa become a fully industrialised and self-sufficient continent by 2063.
During his highly successful and exemplary stint as the Sadc chairperson between 2014 and 2015, President Mugabe put the industrialisation agenda on the map and throughout his tenure worked under a theme which included industrialisation, value addition and beneficiation.
Thus, as a celebrated leader in education, Zimbabwe is possibly charting a new path that the rest of the continent may follow.
The recognition that it is not enough to merely churn out graduates but it is also vitally important to produce innovators that will strive to be future employment creators places the country on a good footing with the future in mind.
Zimbabwe’s realisation that the transformation of its economy will start from the classroom is in line with global trends, with even some of the biggest countries and economies recognising that the apathy towards science and maths education is an Achilles heel that needs urgent care.
In countries like the United States and Australia, where young adults are equipped with the necessary skills for the economy of the future, the programme has brought great benefit to students and consequently their communities and countries at large.
Already, the programme seems to be bearing early fruit in Zimbabwe, with the low uptake of science subjects being reversed although the programme is in its infancy.
According to statistics released by Zimsec, there was a marked improvement in the pass rate and candidature in last year’s A-Level examinations. A total of 20 917 school and private candidates sat for Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Biology in November last year as compared to 18 023 candidates who sat for the same subjects in 2014, showing an average increase of 37 percent.
The combined average pass rate also improved from 57,7 percent in 2014 to 66 percent in 2015 with Chemistry getting the most improved pass rate while Physics had the most improvement in candidature.
However, despite the fact that it is a government programme, the STEM initiative encompasses the whole country, with family and community support vital if the programme is to bring about the desired results.
“Parents or guardians and schools with affected students are encouraged to provide their parental and institutional support respectively, to ensure that this great opportunity is not missed,” Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development Minister, Professor Jonathan Moyo said at the programme’s launch. With the country’s learners seemingly already bitten by the STEM bug, all eyes will now be on how this new crop of students integrates into tertiary institutions.
At the programme’s official launch in February, Prof Moyo said the objective of the multimedia outreach programme was to increase the number of STEM students who will enrol in STEM degree programmes at the country’s universities in 2018 and to stimulate interest in Mathematics, Biology, Physics and Chemistry as STEM subjects.
How the students fare will thus determine how successful the programme will be. As things stand, the country has put its best foot forward and by making an early investment on its learners, Zimbabwe is making sure that its human capital will remain an envy of many in Africa.