By Takura Zhangazha
The pursuit of knowledge of the academic kind is generally viewed as a virtue/arete. By this the inference is not a just a moralistic one but one that also resides in Plato and Aristotle's understanding of the pursuit of knowledge. Therein knowledge is not knowledge for its own sake but for the good of society in a non-ambivalent search for truth.
Zimbabwe’s tertiary institutions and to be particular, its universities have been traditionally viewed as institutions that should be doing just that, pursuing virtue. It is this impression that generally lends anyone who has acquired a doctorate in one academic field or the other everlasting reverence from adoring relatives, friends and work colleagues. In fact this admiration expresses itself in the truth that once one is referred to as a doctor or professor, it is a perpetual social title even in non-academic conversations and circles.
The assumption is that these qualifications have been acquired from institutions that are not only credible but ranked among the best and most competitive in terms of academic excellence and academic freedom. The reality is that our universities are no longer the harbingers of the unbridled and open pursuit of knowledge or virtue. This, for a number of reasons.
The foremost of these reasons being that none of our present (and even planned) tertiary institutions value the all important principle of academic freedom. It is a principle that is the sine qua non of any decent institution of higher learning and entails the unfettered pursuit of knowledge both for its own sake as well as with the intention of improving our understanding of the societies in which we live, for the common good. Where this principle is recognized and enforced, students, academics and non academics will be able to associate, assemble and express themselves freely.
Unfortunately, not a single academic institution in the country, at the moment, has demonstrated the above cited characteristics that are key for the enjoyment of academic freedom.
Most campuses are literally like prison compounds with students and staff being monitored as to who they associate with, what ideas they peddle and who they invite from broader society to interact with the university. Student unionism, staff associations are either prohibited or severely restricted or only permitted where and when they parrot central university administration’s political and policy preferences. As a result of such an environment there has been no active pursuit of knowledge as a virtue in all of our universities. Instead what obtains is the pursuit of knowledge merely as a qualification to the extent that the oft repeated phrase by students is that ‘one is better off if they keep quiet and finish their degrees’ no matter the injustices they experience or witness.
The second and equally debilitating reason as to why our universities are no longer citadels of academic excellence or virtue is their unbridled pursuit of profit. This at the expense of most things academic. Ever since the government significantly reduced funding for universities, their new-found business models treat students and lecturers like commodities off a factory production line. Except that the commodities pay to be on the conveyor belt without a specific guarantee that they will be the full article after production.
What this has led to is a culture of profiteering at the expense of knowledge production. This particularly so where and when it comes to what most universities refer to as the ‘parallel programmes’ for undergraduates. These, coupled with the now ubiquitous post graduate programmes in Business Administration and Development studies are the new university ‘cash cows’. This would not be a problem were these fundraising models being utilized for the promotion of academic freedom. Unfortunately however, they function in tandem with the repressive academic environment at the universities where the most visible and most critical element of university administrations remains the uniformed and punitive security guards.
Where arguments have been made about the right to education, this fundraising model remains one that limits the enjoyment of this right by citizens. It prioritizes the ability to pay over and above the right to an education to the extent that students more often than not fail to complete their studies due to financial constraints. Where they scrape through it is at great cost to not only their purse but also their academic aptitude and freedom (especially with the cadetship scheme).
In the final analysis, our universities perhaps are the default victims of state ineptitude and indifference toward higher education. But this does not absolve those in charge of them of complicity in the demise of academic freedom and the prioritization of inimical profit above all else. It would do well for vice chancellors to have that two line poem by Dambudzo Marechera posted on their doors, ‘Pub Conversation: My name is not money, but mind.’
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)