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Harare makes slow progress

The University of Zimbabwe functions at a comfortable pace, a sign of a country where taking one's time is of the essence.

Despite recent disputes between some students and the administration over the handling of grants, it seems to be business as usual for the 39-year-old campus university in Harare: between lectures, clusters of students hang around on staircases, by the library and in the snack bar.

These scenes may be familiar to British observers but the university faces challenges, objectives and expectations particular to Zimbabwe as a developing country.

Until independence in 1980, the university only had 1,000 students. Since then, it has undergone huge expansion: doubling its numbers by 1985, with the present total standing at 8,000 students.

But of the more than 8,000 who annually satisfy the university's A-level entry requirements (an average of eleven points or B, B, C), it only admits 1,700.

A further 380 are accommodated at other Zimbabwean universities but this still leaves more than 6,000 students without access to university education in Zimbabwe. For the very few who are wealthy enough, education abroad is a possibility but for most, A-levels mark the end of formal education.

Because of the difficulty of gaining access to tertiary education, the university population forms an upwardly-mobile "learning elite". Yet this is not an elite of wealth; most students at the university are from poverty-stricken rural areas.

They are usually entirely dependent on grants and large government loans while at university and it is widely reported that in many cases one grant financially sustains a whole family.

At present, staff shortages are the university's greatest concern as it is unable to fill 40 per cent of its 700 teaching posts, mainly in senior lecturing. According to one lecturer, this is because the salaries offered are "peanuts" and "ludicrous compared with those of South Africa and Botswana". As a consequence, some teaching is done by underqualified staff and students are concerned about the university's standards and the legitimacy of their qualifications.

One student remarked despairingly that "lots of students are brighter and know a lot more than their lecturers . . . I don't know what can be done about it". Low salaries are also a problem for graduates and although most are able to find work, particularly in the civil service which is the largest employer of graduates, many are attracted by better paid jobs elsewhere.

The Zimbabwean medical field is severely hit by freshly qualified doctors leaving for Botswana and South Africa where their qualifications are recognised and the prospect of higher financial returns is the main incentive. Despite the difficulties of tertiary education in Zimbabwe, it is a continually expanding sector.

The New University of Science and Technology in Bulawayo has now been running for a few years and had an intake of 312 students in 1994. There are plans for several church-run universities specialising in religious studies although so far only two are in operation.

Zimbabwean society looks upon its university students as vital to its future and development. Their thirst for and commitment to learning and obtaining degrees are evident but these may not be enough to overcome the odds that seem weighted against them.

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