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Mugabe gets rare praises

28 Apr 2019 at 14:02hrs | Views
If there is one thing that former Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe is commendable for – and coming from me, such a compliment is a bit of a jaw-dropping, tide turner – was his unwavering commitment to public education.

Amidst the apocalyptic annihilation of Zimbabwe's political economy lies a distant, twinkling star of Mugabe's indelible legacy – our obsessive addiction to quality education. Zimbabweans are a continuously learning nation. Wherever you go - rural, peri-urban, urban centres – you confront thousands, if not millions of citizens in one classroom or another. There is not a single square mile – except in game parks – where you do not see a written ‘welcome to something school' sign.

In every neighbourhood, one finds houses, homes, cabins and cottages converted to crèches and ‘ECDs'. In the morning, millions of parents cram the roads and scramble to deliver children to schools as in the afternoon; hired buses ply all routes to take the children back home. In the evenings, colleges and classrooms are crammed with ‘adult education' citizens as also schools struggle with two shifts of ‘hot seating' in the afternoons.

One out every five buildings in the large cities houses a ‘professional college' and thousands of billboards flaunt ‘enrolling from Form One to Six" signage. Newspapers, street signs and trees inundated with ‘come enrol with us' enticements while bus stops, community notice boards in shops and tuckshops invite students for ‘extra lessons'. I mean it is organised academic chaos out there!

According to researcher Mary Ndlovu, the democratisation of education escalated school enrolment by almost 300% between 1980 and 1990. She asserts that almost 30% of Zimbabwe's population at the time enrolled in school with "number of primary schools increasing from 2,401 in 1979 to 4,530 in 1990. Secondary schools increased from 177 to 1,512 in 1990". Mugabe, himself a moving intellectual fable, accelerated public expenditure on education infrastructure, second only to military spending. Hundreds of high schools sprouted, as were teachers' colleges for the ZINTEC program. Whether or not this compromised quality is a debate for another day. Ever since, the academic conveyor belt has not stopped churning out ‘qualified' students. And it shows. Zimbabwean workers and professionals are the most sought after in the whole world. We are articulate, smart and alert. We are in the top three of literacy and numeracy in Africa and still counting. How one political movement has dominated us for this long is mindboggling, to say the least.

Nonetheless, I have a big problem with the pricing structure of our education. Ndlovu does alert us that Mugabe's ‘free education for all' socialist mantra expired in the mid-1990s when the Brettonwoods Institutions rattled the sabre in protest at our ‘social investment' budget. The ultimate result is that from Plumtree to Mutare; Kariba to Beitbridge, one finds schools that label themselves ‘private' – mostly modelled along the lines of the colonial ‘A' schools. During the Rhodesian era, there were schools that disallowed, by law, enrolment of black citizens. These were centres of academic and professional excellence with state-of-the-art facilities. After independence, the privatisation trend continued to afford those who could, an opportunity for ‘higher quality' education. As a liberal myself, I am all for entrepreneurs investing in education. The bedrock of quality is competition. Besides, choice is a fundamental principle of a free market economy.

However, it boggles the mind why these so-called ‘private'- at times even mission schools – extort between US$1 000 - $5 000 per term from parents. There is NO quality of primary and secondary education under the sun, worth THAT much per term. What is so special about those schools? Even in the US or England, that much tuition fee is associated with high-level university education. You can tell me about state-of-the-art facilities, computerised lessons, character investment and all that nonsense. Look at it this way: a school with 500 students that pay US$1 000 each receipts a whopping half-a-million United States dollars EVERY three months. What does a primary or secondary school use that much money for?

I agree that there must be a return on any investment, so if education is a business, let us go all the way to corporate taxes, pensions, IPOs, CSR etc. What irks me most is when a school is sitting on hundreds of acres of land with a zero utility factor. Whenever there is a foreign currency distortion, the not-so-creative school boards and their entrepreneurially retarded school heads think ONLY of ONE thing – increasing the school fees. Mindboggling!

Zimbabwe is not the only country in the world with price distortions. Consider South Africa, where the Rand has been tail spinning from 12 to 14 against the US$ in the past five years. However, tuition fees in schools, even pricing in general, has remained stable. In places like KwaSizabantu Mission, school authorities have invested in horticulture farming, supermarkets and bottling to sustain the school at almost no cost to the community.

 If Zimbabwean ‘private' schools are a business, then people with business experience, not teachers, should run them. There comes a time when citizens should put a stop to criminal profiteering and rent seeking. I know that school boards are populated with individuals whose fees are paid by companies (and this is exactly what escalates prices). These individuals must input knowledge on self-sustenance, rather than merely recommending school fees increases whenever the ‘black market rate of the US$ adjusts upwards'. This is a cowardly easy way out. I do not advocate free education, only that school boards must innovate to ease the burden on parents.

Let me conclude that in the liberal ideology, we believe in choice, especially where the market has provided multiple alternatives. Yet my point remains those that are willing to folk out US$1000-plus per term for primary and secondary school education know nothing else better to do with their money, because NO education at that level is worth that much. It is mindboggling how so-called high-level national literacy and senselessness can coexist.

Source - Rejoice Ngwenya
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