By Isaac Mwanza
Almost after every short period of time, one would not miss the news that Zambia’s two public institutions of higher learning, the University of Zambia (UNZA) and Copperbelt University (CBU) are struggling in financial problems but mostly, finding it difficult to pay lecturers resulting into lecturers downing tools.
Every Minister of Higher Education appointed end up becoming like he or she is Minister for UNZA or CBU. Ministers of higher education are always focused on these two institutions to the neglect of other things such as proposing policy direction to improve delivery of higher education. But the Ministry of Higher Education is bigger than UNZA and CBU.
UNZA and CBU are Government-aided institutions. Additionally, Government is also responsible for remitting it’s contributions of tuition and other student costs for UNZA and CBU which, understandably, it does not do so on time.
Over the last 8 years, more public colleges have been upgraded and accorded a status of University by the PF Government. The intention, had been to ensure many of our people attain the highest form of education. Additionally, more universities have been built as well. These decision come along with additional responsibilities and costs.
The increase in a number of public universities from 2 to 7 implies Government must ordinarily allocate more resources towards higher education. However, we know the sad truth that the percent allocation to education has been going down each and every year due to other competing budgetary needs such as debt servicing.
The increase of Universities, has however, put more pressure on Government to provide the necessary financial support in the running of public institutions of higher learning. Colleges which have been turned into universities require Govt to subsidise costs of providing higher education at that level.
It is therefore a matter of time before problems which affect UNZA and CBU also become the order of the day in these new public universities. That is not because Government may want such a situation but because the financial purse is becoming thinner while the number of institutions and students requiring support from Government continues to grow.
Worse, we have public institutions of higher learning which has employed politicians in the name of lecturers. In advancement of their pursuit to be identified by their leaders, these lecturers have turned public universities into vehicles for doing partisan politics.
So many times, reports are heard how lecturers, instead of tutoring what they were enmployed to do, they are busy inciting students to rise against an elected Government or to demean those in the opposition.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with a lecturer having political preferences or associating with parties of their choice but there is everything wrong to abuse their work contract to champion and discussing partisan political views with students who went to study medicines, agriculture, among many other disciplines.
The unbecoming conduct of lecturers who are advancing the political ideals of their parties instead of focusing on learning in our institutions is not just public just bad manners but also a recipe for anarchy.
So how do we find solutions to these problems affecting our public universities?
1. Run Public Universifues on the basis of the P.P.P Model
At a time when Government has to meet various priorities including financing higher education, the solution is to rethink administration and financing for public universitues and colleges. Allow all public universities to run on the Private Public Partnership (PPP) model.
Encouraging the private sector to get involved in the running of public universities will not only inject the needed capital for infrastructure development and financing of other academic activities but also promote innovation, efficiency and accountability as the private investors will be more keen to grow their investments and get better returns. The levels of accountability and profitability of these public universities will also grow.
2. Develop infrastructure for Non-Subsided ‘Private University’ Within Public University
The University of Zambia, like other public universities and colleges, sits on a very bigger portion of ’empty’ land. It’s buildings (lecture halls, administration, etc), constructed shortly after Independence, occupy almost a quarter of that land. There is an opportunity to build a parallel all-paying university within these university premises, which can run like private universities do.
Again, where would resources for such investment come from? From the local private sector or foreign investors. Higher education is bigger business in Zambia, especially if quality is what potential students see. Any investor would be willing to invest his money if the returns are attractive.
Government must promote this kind of foreign investment. As we continue to look to China who are Africa’s all-weather friend, Government delegations to China must include people from Ministry of Education who can help explain and woo investors to help build additional lecture halls for all schools within public Universities.
Potential students will still enroll and pay the same competitive fees private universities are charging. Additionally, China will have an.opportunity to sell its technology and language for easy operations of equipment it supplies to Africa.
The returns will be higher and public universities will be able to financially sustain themselves.
3. Subsiding Students’ Fees and Granting of Loans
By law, Government is not obliged to restrict provision of student loans to public universities but it has chosen to do so on its own. The effect of this decision is that Government has failed to broadly spread the costs and risks, in longer term.
Public universities alone do bear the burden when Government fails to remit contributions for students under it’s sponsorship.
The solution is for Government to fully implement the spirit of the Higher Education Loans and Scholarship Act which does not look at the name of an institution where a sponsored student is enrolled for them to be provided Government sponsorship.
Once Government decides to spread the sponsorship of students to private universities, public universities will also find space to take students who are ready to float the full costs of Higher education, thereby improving their balance sheet.
4. De-politicisation of Universities
Government must earnestly work at depoliticising universities both at the levels of lecturers tasked with inculcating necessary knowledge in students and also at student level.
If our lecturers want to engage students in politics during lectures, let them be teaching political sciences or education. Again, it is wrong for a lecturer to forget that a class may have students with different political ideologies against those of lecturers. Those running public Universities must thus insist, as is done in most private universities, for lecturers to sign a Code of Conduct that will prevent them delving into partisan politics.
Those lecturer-bloggers who decide to take their frustrations into class and the media, mostly to incite citizens to rise against their own government, its high time that you either took up positions of columnists full time and leave the public universities where you are finding opportunities to pollute the mind of students.
The Minister of Higher Education must also table amendments to relevant Acts of Parliament to prohibit formation of political branches by students in universities.
If we stopped this practice in markets and bus stops, and it is not allowed in civil service, then it must also not be allowed in public universities.