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Zimbabwe`s Tertiary Education System: The Case for Reform

"If then a practical end must be assigned to a university course, I say it is that of training good members of society... it is the education which gives man a clear, conscious view of their own opinions and judgements, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them and a force in urging them. It teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought to detect what is sophistical and discard what is irrelevant"- 
John Henry Newman, The idea of a University

Education lies at the heart of societal progress. Throughout history, as nations have developed from medieval traditional societies to the industrialised nations they are today, education has been instrumental in driving that development.

By no means are the other stages of education (primary and secondary) inferior, but this essay focuses on university education as key in ensuring growth and development of our country. Universities are the training ground for our country`s young as they get ready to face the unique challenges the world poses. It is in this regard that tertiary education is of great consequence in the nation`s continued development.

Like most African countries, Zimbabwe too has a population demographic in which the youth constitute a significant portion of the population. The 2012 National Population Census Report shows that 41% of the population are under the age of 15, underlining the youthfulness of Zimbabwe`s population. As our young grow to reach university going age, it is incumbent upon us to ask ourselves if we are creating the right institutions for our country`s youth to be educated in and be equipped to face the global world.

This argumentative essay looks at the fundamental issues affecting tertiary education and the possible ways of mitigating these challenges to ensure our education system keeps up with International standards, and thus produces well equipped students.

·         Access to University Education for all through sufficient funding

University education should be open to all people who can meet the requirements of admission. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) notes that countries with high graduation rates at tertiary level are also those most likely to be developing or maintain a highly skilled labour force. Russia which at 53.5% has the highest proportion of its population with tertiary education is also one of the most developed countries globally1.

This obviously touches on funding which has been a major setback for thousands in their quest to attain a university education. The government funded cadetship programme has not been as effective in ensuring that those underprivileged members of society who meet the grade are able to access university education as it would have been intended. Government must view expenditure in the country`s education sector with a long term bias; which means that rather than seeing education expenditure as a cost, the government has to see education as a long term investment. By availing funding to aid research, training, development of school curricula and training of lecturers, the government ensures that going forward; our universities produce fully trained and qualified youths who can take up mantle of nation building.

 Research conducted in India has shown that India`s major success in the software industry in the last decade or so, is largely due to the major investments made in technical education in the 1950s and 60s2. Vital funding has to be released into Zimbabwe`s tertiary education system as a matter of priority if students who graduate locally are to be able to compete for jobs globally.

It is no secret however that since the turn of the new millennium, our government`s revenues have been constrained as generally, the Zimbabwean economy has been underperforming. This is where private sector funding can play a crucial role in financing university education. In Japan for instance, the proportion of private spending on college/university education stood at 66.7% of total education spending in 20133.Locally, corporates like Econet, Delta and BAT have done commendably well in funding the education of thousands of people and in so doing ensuring that access to university education is availed to all. Concerted efforts must therefore be made to encourage private sector players with the wherewithal, to fund university studies in the country.

·         Reforms of outmoded curriculum

The university school curriculum is also another issue of core importance that needs to be looked at. Existing courses need to be reviewed, new courses recommended and approved and the overall efficacy of courses needs to be periodically re-evaluated to ensure the skills being taught, are aligned to the requirements in industry. In 1999, the Nziramasanga Commission noted that, “Zimbabwe`s curriculum was designed to train employees rather than employers/entrepreneurs4.”

This is something that is systemic. Schools continue to use a curriculum that was last comprehensively reviewed in the 1980s, and this is something that needs to be addressed on a broader level. As the world progresses, we cannot afford for students who attend local universities to be disadvantaged as a result of them acquiring outmoded skills because of an obsolete curriculum. Policy hence needs to be directed at creating a level playing field between local students and those who graduate from foreign institutions through embracing a modern and progressive curriculum.

It is prudent however to note that though the pace is far from satisfactory, government has launched the Government Graduate Entrepreneurial and Employment Promotion Programme to provide on-the-job entrepreneurial skills. The bottom line however is, we must embrace change and appreciate that the world is dynamic. Yes, we boast one of the highest literacy rates globally, but in the next 10-15 years, this will not matter much if nothing is done to redress the anomaly of an outdated school curriculum.

·         Extending and expanding the scope of learning

Closely tied to the issue of curriculum is the need to adopt changes and move away from “traditional” courses that are offered at local universities. The scope of study needs to be broadened and courses currently being offered expanded. A quick glance at school campuses would show that students majoring in Accounting, Banking and Finance, Engineering represent the majority of graduates at most of our tertiary institutions.

However, we all cannot be Accountants, Bankers or Engineers, and it is time that this issue is addressed. An educational system that is as rigid as ours will inherently exclude some people from the system altogether. In addition, the real talents people have may also be stifled. It tells our young that unless you are good at Math and Accounting for instance, you will not make it in society. What then becomes of the child gifted in Photography, Dance, and Design etc? This speaks to the need for more liberal thinking in setting up the scope of our studies. Granted, science subjects are important in creating a progressive society of innovators. Today, China produces 8 times more science graduates than America, and the results are there for everyone to see5. China is now the 2nd largest economy in the world and is now a bastion of technological innovation. If students are good in Math and Science, they should be encouraged, and in the same manner opportunities must be availed for those less inclined in sciences and other technical courses.

In America, the arts and culture industry accounted for $504 billion in 2013 which is approximately 3, 2% of America`s GDP6. This too can be Zimbabwe`s future if we expand the tentacles of our education system. Subjects and courses which for the longest time have not been considered middle-of-the-road and subsequently have been shied away from need to be integrated into study. This flexibility allows more of our youth to apply themselves in the varied spheres of their expertise. Going forward, this bodes well for Zimbabwe as there will be more active participants in a diversified economy.

·         Gender Balance and equality of representation of students

Millennium Development Goal number 3, aims to promote gender equality and empower women7. Gender parity is essential and should be achieved in our lifetime. As our women prosper, the society as a whole flourishes, as they are the backbone of our nation. Equal opportunities for girls in institutions of higher learning should thus be promoted in an effort to meet the Millennium Development Goals.

In his 2011 report on Zimbabwe`s Human Rights record, Justice and Legal Affairs minister, Patrick Chinamasa highlighted that female enrolment in Zimbabwe Universities was nearing 40%8. Compared to the early 1990s when enrolment figures where somewhere in the region of 25%, this is a welcome development. However, much still needs to be done to break both the privileges and the disqualifications brought about by gender and provide both sexes equal opportunities for learning and personal development.

Early marriages, negative parental attitudes towards female education, Sexual harassment and abuse as well as lack of funding have been some of the factors that have contributed to the high attrition rates of females in universities. Bold steps need to be undertaken to address these critical issues curtailing the advancement of women education. Gender parity is thus a necessary component in ensuring the country`s continued growth.
Institutions such as the Women`s University in Africa have contributed significantly in ensuring that women previously marginalised and denied the opportunity for higher education are afforded the chance to do so. The necessary financial, technical and institutional frameworks from a policy and legislative perspective must thus be put in place to this end.  

·         Addressing the structural issues perpetuating graduate unemployment
Africa has around 200 million youth, who constitute a little over 20% of the continent`s population. A further analysis shows that Africa`s youth contribute 37% of the continents total labour force, yet paradoxically the youth make up about 60% of total unemployment in Africa8. Producing over 5 million graduates annually, it is apparent that the numbers of graduates being produced are not being adequately absorbed into the industries for which they are receiving training for.
Looking at Zimbabwe, the trend is no different. On average, Zimbabwe`s universities produce around ten thousand graduates annually, and yet youth unemployment remains stubbornly high. A university education is a long term investment and naturally, people would expect to reap the rewards of their effort acquiring skills at institutions of higher learning. This is not the case however, as employment after university education is no longer guaranteed.
University students from the onset should be made aware of this trend, and from the very first days of university, they should be actively looking for ways to counter this negative trend. Innovation, creativity, out-of-the box thinking should be encouraged on a broader societal level to circumvent youth employment.
The problem of youth unemployment largely remains structural in nature. The International Labour Organisation identifies four factors to be at the heart of high youth unemployment in Africa as follows9:
·         African economies are enclaves characterised by excessive dependence on primary commodity exports, predominance of subsistence agriculture and capital intensive extractive industries, all of which have low potential for job creation for the youth

·        Given its emphasis on low skilled labour, the private sector is generally unable to contribute to the development of employment and to the creation of stable jobs for the youth

·         The investment climate prevalent in much of Africa is hardly conducive to the creation of productive jobs, especially in the informal sector where the bulk of the youth is condemned to precarious jobs; and

·         Weak institutional capacity and lack of adequate infrastructure (including roads, Information & Communication Technologies) particularly in the rural areas have hampered the creation of jobs for the youth.

As long as these structural bottlenecks continue to exist, the problem of youth unemployment will be pervasive for the foreseeable future. It is imperative therefore for policy makers, academics, businesses and the student body as a whole to work together to address both the demand-side and supply-side impediments to youth employment. We need to get our youth to productively contribute to the nation`s development, and this can never be achieved if they are idle.
·         Conclusion
Universities are places of light, liberty and learning, and are thus critical in our national development agenda as they are tasked with grooming our young, who are the future of our country. We can ill afford to turn a blind eye to what happens to our national tertiary institutions. Government must be more involved in creating an enabling environment for the youths to thrive.  Parents should take an active role in the academic lives of their children, and instead of complaining about irrelevant and outdated curricula, businesses should be having synergies with universities whereby they give internships to promising students, thereby equipping them with the necessary skills and training that the businesses require.
Ultimately, it is the students themselves who have it all to do. More often than not, evidence has suggested that the political leaders tasked with managing universities are not as effective as they ought to be. After all, their children are studying abroad, and are subsequently disconnected to the real plight of local students (this however, is deplorable on every front). Students need to look at the bigger picture and see where they fit individually in our national system. They should make themselves relevant!
Instead of being manipulated for political gains, student unions need to work for the betterment of the student body as a whole. They should exist to represent the students; the poor and the marginalised and be advocates of positive change that builds our institutions. If all the relevant stakeholders stand shoulder to shoulder, with feet firmly planted on the ground, and eyes cast toward the future, then and only then can we create institutions of higher learning that will serve future generations and perform their function of enlightening and educating our youth in preparation for leading the nation tomorrow.

NB: To request a PDF copy of this essay, email

1 Sauter M, Frohlich T, ‘The most educated countries in the world’, Wall Street Journal, October 16 2013
2 Dastidar, S, ‘Relationship between public education expenditures and economic growth: The case of India’, Dundee University Discussion Papers In Economics-273, 2012
3 Kyodo, J, ‘Education Spending Lowest in OECD, Japan Times, 15 September 2011, viewed 10 February 24, 2014, http//
4 Nziramasanga, T, ‘The Presidential Commission of Inquiry on Education and Training in Zimbabwe report’ The Commission, 1999, p62
5 Wadhwa, W, ‘China produces more engineering graduates than India, US: Study’ Duke University Research Papers, 2007
6 U.S Bureau of Economic Analysis & the National Endowment for the Arts, ‘Research puts a $500 Billion price tag on Arts & Culture’, December 2013
7 United Nations Development Programme, ‘the Millennium Development Goals: Eight Goals for 2015’ viewed 17 February 2014, http//
8 OECD, 2011, ‘African Economic Outlook 2011: Africa and its emerging partner, OECD Publishing.
9 ILO, 2011, ‘Global Employment Trends’ International Labour Organisation Working Paper
World Bank, 2009, ‘Youth and Unemployment in Africa: The Potential, The Problem, The Promise’, Washington DC.
Ngaruko, F, 2011, ‘enhancing capacity for Youth Employment in Africa: Some Emerging Lessons’ Africa Capacity Development Brief vol 2.


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