By Dr.Chiyaba Njovu.
Strikes at UNZA over Lecturers’ perks have been discussed by successive governments without any long term solutions for more than three decades now. I cannot believe that today we are still talking about negotiating Lecturers’ salaries year in and year out without any long term solutions being hatched out. UNZA problems still continue and yet long term solutions have been tabled before successive governments so many times.
I am talking from experience as one of the people that tabled proposals to HE Michael Sata then Minister of Labour in 1993. I was Publicity Secretary and Acting Secretary of UNZALARU at the time. Our proposal was simple and aimed at finding a long term solution to perpetual salaries negotiations at UNZA. Our proposal was dubbed ‘Equal Pay for Work of Equal value’. The basis of this proposal was creating payment package parity between local Lecturers and those of expatriates.
You may be aware that most expatriates in Zambia had a dollar component called inducement allowance added to their salaries that was payable in any Country of their choice plus a kwacha salary equivalent to the local Lecturers. This dollar component cushioned expatriates from any inflationary distortions in the economy as its value could not b eroded by devaluations in the local currency. Our proposal was supposed to have long term effects which could have cushioned Lecturers salaries from inflationary distortions and thereby creating stability on their basic earnings.
Negotiating for salaries year in year out is counter-productive. People’s salaries are supposed to be automatically adjusted each year to take into account any inflationary distortions in the economy. This idea was agreed by government and then Minister of Labour Hon. Sata, now HE The President of Zambia requested us to draft a Cabinet memorandum which was to be tabled at a Cabinet meeting the same month in 1993. This pay framework was supposed to be implemented in 1993 but government kept shifting goal posts until April 1994 when Lecturers ran out of patience and went on strike over the same. What followed turned UNZA upside down.
To-date, the outcomes from that meeting promised to us by then the Hon. Minister of Labour have never been discussed as the University was forcibly closed in April 1994 the over Lecturers’ demands to have that proposal implemented. Whether those demands were discussed genuinely at Cabinet level shall remain unknown. Lecturers were fired and later intimidated into submission. Those of us that could not be intimidated took legal action and subsequently won the Court case. Most Lecturers were working half heartedly while waiting for the next advert at another Institution.
The resulting consequences of those actions by government were massive brain drains from UNZA. To the best of my knowledge, UNZA lost more than 300 Lecturers between 1994 and 1998. These Lecturers are serving in foreign Countries where stable conditions allow them to plan their living without worrying about money for the next meal. Unfortunately, politicians will never understand that nobody can supervise a Lecturer in practical terms. A Lecturer worried about a meal for his family will never plan his/her teaching effectively and will never deliver learning in a constructive manner. They end up coping notes for the students and not lecturing. Others end up compromising their professional ethics and get bribed. The Institution suffers and in the long term the Country suffers – Catch 22. What that means is that most Lecturers would prefer to be using their spare time taking private tuition and never engaged in supporting students as doing so would mean sacrificing their families who may end up going hungry.
I am sure most government leaders are aware that this is the situation prevailing at UNZA since then. It is undeniable that standards will continue going down until long term solutions are found. The long term consequences are that such Lecturers would never engage in Research and Scholarly Activities (RSA) in a constructive manner. Who suffers? The Institution suffers as the Academic recognition and subsequent rankings of International Universities depend on the number of publications of its Academic staff. What is UNZA’s ranking on the International scale? Coupled with an unstable learning environment where students can take to the streets at any time, it is no wonder UNZA does not attract any foreign students.
Similarly students allowances are not supposed to be negotiated year in year out. The government plans the budget and knows the realistic cost of living. Their plan should take into account their responsibilities to the students they sponsor. They don’t need to wait for students’ demands before responding to their needs.
Today, it is amazing that having gone through such experiences, some of the sitting government officials who were themselves victims of such poor planning leadership styles can sit back and watch UNZA deteriorate while they drive past in their luxurious cars. It is a fact that some of the people who taught at UNZA and subsequently returned to UNZA after losing political Office are part of the group of Lecturers complaining about salaries. How hypocritical when they had a chance to do something positive about UNZA when they were in government.
It is my considered view that government revisits the equal pay framework and implements it fully if UNZA is to be stable for a while. Any knee-jerk increments aimed at circumventing the real problem for now will only postpone it to the next year and we shall be back to square one. It is one thing to promise something and another to effect it. Leaders need to be proactive and plan ahead for all Institutions. Academics’ problems and those of their students are never sudden in nature and usually have a cycle. Government can plan around such issues and build into their systems checks that would ensure these issues are triggered automatically without waiting for anyone to complain. These systems exist and are working in other Institutions, why not UNZA and Zambia as a whole?
UNZA is a great Institution that has shaped Zambia locally and internationally. Its deteriorating standards should be something we should all worry about as it is the heart of Zambia’s future. Unfortunately, all these prevailing problems are creating an environment where there is no RSA to inform the teaching. Most teaching materials at UNZA have never been revised for many years as Lecturers have no time for such activities. They are worried about their survival – what a shame? This should worry any well meaning and caring leadership.
Our most brilliant children should be the heart of our nation and neglecting them can only be at the nation’s peril. No nation will give you its best people. Governments need to invest in their best people. The onus is on government who may wish to seize this opportunity and create a real meaningful legacy by finding long term solutions to the well known problems in our Higher Education Institutions. UNZA is just one of them, the problems are the same with other institutions as well. The ball is in government’s court – will they play it?