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Govt tightens its grip on universities

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THE Zimbabwean government, notorious for authoritarian control of society, is tightening its Orwellian grip on state universities in the country through the Amendment of the State Universities Statutes Bill which is not in sync with the constitution by acts of commission and omission, or both.

NYASHA CHINGONO

This is particularly being done by overhauling the state university councils and widening the powers of appointment of key staff, while stifling academic freedom, a fundamental human right, to ensure compliance with officialdom.

 Academic freedom entails the liberty to engage in intellectual inquiry and is essential to the purpose of higher education, mission of its institutions and professional duties of those involved in teaching, learning and research processes.

Without academic freedom, critical thinking cannot be cultivated, and without critical thinking, higher learning cannot be nurtured and sustained.

The move has raised serious concerns in the public domain and academic circles as it seeks to entrench the government’s authoritarian control of universities, while suppressing academic freedom in the highest institutions of learning.

“As we have shown, the Bill does not wholly succeed in any of the objectives set out in its memorandum, and fails completely in what is perhaps the most important one, namely bringing the University Acts into conformity with the constitution,” an analysis by parliamentary and legislative processes watchdog Veritas says.

“In all, it is a deeply flawed Bill.” All university officers are either state officers (for instance the President) or are appointed by a government officer or with the approval of a government officer. “The bill proposes to extend the government’s control by requiring that the universities’ bursars and librarians also be appointed with the approval of the minister,” Veritas says.

The Bill was published in the Government Gazette on 7 January and will amend 13 Acts establishing institutions of higher learning. According to the Bill’s memorandum, the amendments seek to align university Acts with the constitution and make their provisions more uniform; bring the universities’ objectives into line with the government’s education policy, with a focus on the production of goods and services; reduce the size of the university councils and make them more balanced in regard to gender and regional representation; alter the way senior university officers are appointed; introduce principles of good corporate governance, and streamline disciplinary procedures.

The University of Zimbabwe Act, which is typical of most of the other acts, sets out the university’s objectives in section 4 as ensuring “the advancement of knowledge, the diffusion and extension of arts, science and learning, the provision of higher education and research and . . . the nurturing of the intellectual, aesthetic, social and moral growth of the students at the university”.

The Bill will add “community service, innovation and industrialisation” to the list of what the university is expected to provide. Similar amendments are made to the other Acts, and that seems to be all the Bill is going to do to bring the universities’ objectives into line with government educational policy. The Bill makes changes to the institutions’ councils.

“Section 11 of the UZ Act, which sets out the composition of the university’s council, is typical of the other university Acts. According to the section, the university is to be governed by a 63-member council consisting of the chancellor, the vice-chancellor and the pro-vice-chancellors (the chief executive officers of the university), 16 members appointed by the minister, another 10 members appointed by the minister to represent various specified interest groups such as commerce, industry, agriculture and religious bodies, the president of the students’ union, three members elected by the university staff (all of whom have to be approved by the vice-chancellor), nine members of staff appointed by the university senate, and one distinguished academic appointed by the council,” Veritas says.

 “It is an enormous and unwieldy body, but it represents a wide variety of interest groups.”

The Bill proposes to replace it with a council of between 10 and 20 members comprising the chancellor and vice-chancellor (but not pro-vice-chancellors), 10 ministerial appointees, two faculty members appointed by the senate, the president of the students’ union, and two members elected by the university workers’ committee. Similar amendments are made to the other university Acts.

The new councils will have to have equal numbers of men and women and give fair representation to Zimbabwe’s regions. Members will serve a maximum of two four-year terms — at present they can be re-appointed or re-elected for an in[1]definite number of three-year terms.

The chief officers of state universities are their chancellors, vice-chancellors, pro-vice-chancellors and registrars. The state President is the chancellor of all the state universities, which means he nominally heads them all. The vice-chancellors are the universities’ chief executive officers. They are appointed by the chancellor, that is the President, after consultations with the minister and the university councils.

The pro-vice-chancellors are appointed variously by the chancellor after consultations with the minister or (in the case of UZ and Masvingo State University) by the university councils with the approval of the minister. The registrars, who perform the functions of corporate secretaries, are appointed by the university councils with the approval of the minister.

All these officers are therefore either state officers (for instance the President) or are appointed by a government officer or with the approval of a government officer. “The Bill proposes to extend the government’s control by requiring the universities’ bursars and librarians also to be appointed with the approval of the minister,” Veritas says.

The Veritas analysis also deals with the principles of good corporate governance. It also tackles disciplinary procedures, aligning of laws with the constitution and regional balance, and academic freedom.

 “Neither the Bill nor any of the university Acts mention academic freedom. This is a very serious omission. Section 61 of the constitution protects academic freedom as a fundamental human right under the general heading of freedom of expression,” Veritas says.

“Academic freedom broadly means the freedom of members of universities and similar academic communities to research, study and teach what they consider to be appropriate.

“It has three inter-related aspects: Freedom of the academic community to express themselves as enquirers after knowledge and truth in a manner consistent with professional standards of enquiry. It includes freedom to teach, to conduct research and to publish their views.

“Institutional autonomy of the university, which entails a corresponding right and obligation on the university to protect the freedom of its academic staff. While universities are entitled to determine teaching standards, they must protect their staff against external pressures that seek to limit their freedom. An obligation on the state to respect and protect academic freedom in both the other two aspects.”

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