Murwira dismisses student protests over fees hike as cheap activism
Minister thinks an increase from $50 000 to $358 000 makes fees cheaper
Higher Education Minister, Professor Amon Murwira has defended current university fees hikes arguing they were now even cheaper amid calls for students to desist from cheap activism and where justifiable, to apply for work-for-fees programmes.
The remarks come against a background where most State universities have increased fees from around ZW$50 000 for undergraduate degrees to between ZW$215 000 up to a high of ZW$358 000 with Medicine and Engineering programmes being on the highest end.
In US$ terms, based on the official exchange rate currently standing at US$1:ZW$628,19 the lowest fees at university now stands between a low of US$342,25 and a high of US$569,89.
The situation is even worse for postgraduate students, who now have to fork out an equivalent of between US$469 and US$912,14 with higher research degrees going for as much as US$1 500 in some instances.
The fact that most guardians are reeling under hardship is not a secret with recent research findings by payscale.com establishing that the average salary being paid by local companies to professionals like accountants’ average ZW$17 000 which is equivalent to US$17 with the highest paid professional taking home a salary of ZW$105 000 equivalent to US$167.
Government’s own employees combined earnings at around US$175 and about ZW$70 000 places the category under difficulties to fund their dependents and their own studies.
Interestingly, the latest data from the government run unit, Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (ZimStat) 2022 second quarter labour force survey established that 62% of Zimbabwe workers were taking home a measly US$60 per month as of April 2022.
But speaking exclusively to NewZimbabwe.com in a wide ranging interview on Thursday and challenged to accept that the current university fees thresholds are tantamount to kicking a significant number of students out of college, Prof Murwira denied the assessment.
He declined to link the fees structures with current salaries in the economy arguing that his mandate is to oversee the smooth flow of Higher and Tertiary Education.
“If you compare the current fees thresholds with what was being charged in 2017, you will note that the fees are now much cheaper.
“Back then state university fees were around US$400 but right now we are at around UD$200. Remember, we only approved between ZW$184 000 and a high of ZW$220 000 with the remainder being ancillary fees set by the universities,” he said.
The Higher Education Minister insisted that no student whatsoever will stay at home arguing that the government currently has many programmes which enable students to remain in class.
“We are supporting our students in the best way we can. We have a work for fees program. We also have a student loan program which even has a very low uptake. Every student is eligible to take up that loan right now. We have got more than ZW$200 million ready for take-ups. this is what the government is currently doing,” he said.
Quizzed on how many students can be accommodated under such facilities and challenged to justify the rationale of hiking fees in the midst of current hardships, Murwira assured citizens that cases will be treated accordingly as he distanced himself from the rising operational costs.
“We can’t run away from the cost of living. If we do not increase the fees the universities will not be able to feed the students. What can we do? We do not control food prices. We do not sell ball points.
“That’s why we are trying to be as innovative to make sure that we get control of such variables. In the meantime, we do not control such things. We do not control the price of bread. Do we?
“All things are being done to make sure that we uphold the quality of education. Universities are not there to make any profits. After all, if you do a real calculation which has nothing to do with emotions, you will discover that we did not increase anything, we just adjusted according to how the economy moved,” he said.
Asked to justify the practicality of hiking fees and ordering students to either pay or risk not taking examinations within just one and half months’ short notice as is the case with some state universities and also why the government was not coming to the rescue of students through relevant policy interventions.
“Like I told you before, universities like the Midlands State University have a work for fees programme. It was the first institution to introduce such a programme.
“What it means is that they will use their own muscle to work for the university to clear their fees. How the fees are paid is an operational issue for the university and has nothing to do with policy. The university community has to sit together and agree on a work plan.
“At one-point people call for operational independence and at another turn when we intervene we are criticised for operational interference. Universities are entities that should govern themselves properly. Section 61.1 C of the constitution guarantees academic independence,” he said.
However, several students’ representatives who spoke to NewZimbabwe.com on condition of anonymity slammed the fees structures, describing them as way out of touch with the reality of the ground as they pleaded with the government to make serious reconsiderations.
Reacting to the move, Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe president described the hikes as “palpably unjust” more so given that education is a “right and not a privilege”
“At worst it must be, therefore, accessible and affordable. The government is to blame and so is the Minister.
“Infact Minister Murwira is always off-side if we are to recall his utterances urging graduating students to build schools.
“That only reflect is an achievement way beyond the reach of ordinary citizens and only within reach of the government and development partners
“Instead he must lobby the government and key stakeholders to give students flexible loans, payment terms and grants so that education does not become a preserve of the rich,” he said.