Speaking in Parliament on Wednesday, 9 March, the Minister of Education, Dr Michael Kaingu announced that:
1) government was considering reopening the University of Zambia and Copperbelt University that were shut down after students engaged in violent students protests to demand meal allowances that had not been paid
2) the universities would be reopened on or close to 10th April
if/when the universities reopen, government will no longer disburse meal allowance as students bursaries require.
3) for the universities to open the CBU and UNZA councils and administration will have to:
a. implement major security changes to include the installation of surveillance cameras, flood lights , advanced student identification systems, strict regulation of entry and exit of visitors to the campuses and the purchase of radio communication equipment for university security.
b. expel all lecturers students and staff deemed to have been ring leaders in the most recent protests
4) Government will from January 2017 setup a loan system to replace the current bursaries
To my recall, never in the history of this country has such a rash, not thought through statement on such a fundamental issue facing the country been made with such reckless abandon by a Minister in Parliament.
It was a statement that showed a government that has become so accustomed to anarchical governance that it has lost touch with the basics of orderly management of a country. The statement came across as an arrogant thumb suck that said to citizens “we are in power and we do not need to think when we speak.”
The absence of any interrogation of what taking away meal allowances in a middle of an academic year means was astounding. Even more shocking was declaring that universities that are failing to provide even the most basic requirements for a 21st century higher education should find money to turn campuses into army barracks.
In order to pass as a statement that had been accorded even minimum thought by Cabinet, critical information needed to be given by the Minister some of which is:
1) How many students are on bursaries and will therefore be affected by the withdrawal of meal allowances at such short notice?
2) What are government immediate plans for students who cannot afford to pay for their own meals some already in their last year of study?
3) Why did government not set up the loan scheme and then withdraw bursaries/meal allowances?
4) Has a cost analysis of the security changes that government demands universities implement before they can reopen been done? If so what is the envisaged cost?
5) Where will the money for those changes come from?
6) If money to turn campuses into army barracks is available, is this how it can best be used?
7) What plans does government have for the allocation to student meal allowances in the 2015 national budget? To what will it be redirected?
8) How long is government prepared to keep the two universities closed if they cannot implement the security measures?
9) How will government prevent students from doing what we all know students do when they are treated this way?
My reaction as a citizen to Minister Kaingu’s statement on the universities is the realization that we have a government that has so mismanaged public resources that it has no idea what to do to address the budget deficit. It is a government that is in resource panic mode and is therefore thumb sucking decisions to fill the huge holes that it has dug into the public fiscus. My considered view as a citizen who was totally floored by the off-the-cuff sounding statement made by the Minister of Education is that he must (be made to) go back to the drawing board to think through the proposals he made to the house. When he returns to Parliament, we can only hope that he makes a statement that shows respect for the citizens of this country. Meanwhile the citizens of this country need to refuse to accept the governance nonsense we saw in Parliament on Wednesday.
By Laura Miti