Thursday, 17 October 2013

University of Zimbabwe: Seek ye first Academic Freedom (and everything else shall follow)


By Takura Zhangazha*

Writing in the Zimbabwe Independent (11-17 October), journalist and colleague Herbert Moyo, aptly pointed out the problems that are afflicting Zimbabwe’s largest university, the University of Zimbabwe (UZ). In his report, Moyo makes reference to how over a year ago, the former Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara had set up a fundraising committee of the institution’s celebrity ex alumni. The latter committee’s first act was to invite former South African President, Thabo Mbeki to be a key note speaker at a fundraising dinner.  

For at least trying, were he not a senior government minister, Mutambara cannot be faulted.  Except that in this particular case he was. The fundraising dinner , as outlined in the report by Moyo had celebrity politicians/businessmen pledging millions of dollars in cash or kind. To date none of these pledges have materialized. Or are even being talked about by the authorities and former government leaders that fell over themselves in praise of a dinner they vaingloriously felt was the epitome of public private partnerships. As is now apparent, the efforts by Mutambara and co have turned out to have been attempts at addressing symptoms and not the actual ailment afflicting the UZ.

To put it bluntly, the root cause of the problems affecting our country’s largest university is the lack of academic freedom.  This has been the deliberately overlooked and ignored key cause of the malaise of the institution since the effecting of the University of Zimbabwe Act in 1990. 

It is a problem that became more compounded with the decline in the national economy with a simultaneous reduction of government funding for higher education. Both of which were caused by central government's embracing of now infamous Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP) austerity measures.  It is these financial woes that were and have been used by both the government and central university administration as convenient excuses to stifle academic freedom both in the past and in present day.

It became a case of economic and academic blackmail driven by the undemocratic and deliberately stated threat of suffering  the loss of academic freedom or face/see the closure of the university to both students and staff. This threat was to be made even more startling with the undemocratic expulsion of student leaders and loss of employment for outspoken junior lecturers and academic/non academic staff.   

It is the same repressive culture that obtains and was deliberately ignored by those former students that hosted that now infamous fundraising dinner over a year ago.

For those that have an interest in the return of the UZ to being an institution of academic excellence, they  must begin by fighting for it to have academic freedom. They must do so on the basis of seeking first academic freedom and everything else will follow (to borrow from Kwame Nkrumah’s political maxim). It is an academic freedom that should be taken to mean the recognition of the right of all students, academic and non academic staff to freely associate, assemble and express themselves and to pursue research and study without undue interference. 

All of this achieved within the context of an environment in which the necessary services such as student loans/grants, accommodation, health, transport, academic resources, student and  staff unionism, the reduction and re-orientation of the university security from being akin to a thought/repression force to merely providing basic security on campus and the placing of direct funding obligations on government for all of these essential components of a democratic and excellent university.

Where this is done with competent honesty, the UZ will be able to begin a process of courting the investment it requires to compete both locally and globally. It is an investment that will reside in the confidence that the university is being governed in a manner that conforms with the highest standards and expectations of academic freedom and excellence. This would also serve as being  contrary to the current framework in which the UZ is being portrayed as a mere corporatist marketing platform for a few academic departments in order to give prominent individuals in Zimbabwean society assumptions of philanthropy.

Furthermore, the whole concept of running the UZ like a private business runs contrary to the right of all Zimbabweans to an education. While financial self reliance in certain aspects of a public university are expected, to seek to make profit on the basis of parents ability to pay tuition reflects an unfortunate comfort with a bottleneck approach to higher education by both the UZ central administration and its parent government ministry.  And most of those in charge of the institution did not have to pay a single cent to get through their university studies, a development which they cannot justify to those students that they continually refuse either results or entry into examination halls.

As I wrote earlier in this blog, the initiative by Mutambara and co may have been well intended but it was ill thought out. It skirted the underlying cause of the general crisis at the UZ, this being that of the lack of academic freedom. It is the establishment of the latter at the UZ that will lead to more organic resolutions of the crisis at the college.

Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity. If you decide to use this blogpost please acknowedge that you got it from takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com