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Zambia’s public universities at a crossroads – Chinsembu

A UNIVERSITY of Namibia lecturer Kazhila Chinbsembu says Zambia’s public universities are at a crossroads.

Professor Chinsembu says there is now an urgent need to find a third way that brings fresh thinking, best ideas, and actionable solutions to the most challenging financial problems facing the University of Zambia and the Copperbelt University.

Prof Chinsembu said Zambia presented a paradox.

“As government opens new public universities, old ones such as the University of Zambia (UNZA) and Copperbelt University (CBU) are constantly ill-funded by the same government promising to build and open more public universities,” he said. “In the midst of this paradox, delays in the payment of academic staff salaries are the most painful signs of a much deeper crisis that threatens to downgrade the international rankings of the country’s public universities. Yet, in order to create new knowledge, universities ought to continuously engage in mental fermentation. This cannot happen when professors are hungry and angry because their salaries have not been paid. As the country diverts funding from education to debt servicing, what must be done to avert this looming financial threat to our public universities that are already on their knees, with a begging bowl in their hands?”

Prof Chinsembu, himself a former UNZA lecturer, said the answer would remain elusive as long as the government lacks the critical understanding that education is the best economic policy.
Prof Chinsembu said decision makers in government and technocrats at the Ministry of Finance must have the conviction that a strong public university sector is the best way to ensure economic growth.

He said a well-funded public university sector was the best way to re-engineer and restructure the country’s social order, and to produce a high-earning middle class.

“At the forefront of this conviction should be our country’s collective advocacy to challenge the myopic notion, often donor-driven, that purports that government funding of public university education is an unwanted bottomless pity. Recall that our public universities have already undergone long periods of intellectual stagnation because of poor funding from government,” he said.

“But, as we challenge government to increase funding to public universities, our public universities must also do their part: they must change their poor organisational culture and psychology. They must change their poor corporate leadership and management styles. So, what must be done to unlock the potential of Zambia’s public universities in order to put them on an irreversible path of self-sustenance?”

Prof Chinsembu said since universities were complex organisations in a constant state of flux, public universities must engender transformative leadership and management, rather than having mere strategic plans on paper.

“As our public universities struggle to cope with the scissors effect – where government continues to cut subventions, and amid calls for massification and increased quality of university education, the leadership of our public universities must become transformative,” he said.

He said strong leadership was an essential trait for a public university to develop an entirely new self-understanding.

Prof Chinsembu said to mitigate the scissors effect, the leadership in the public universities must be innovative and entrepreneurial.

“Corollary, our public universities must recruit top class academics and rarely skilled professors – not primary school teachers- that can attract international research grants. To do this, the recruitment process must change. There is an emerging area of consensus that our public universities must generate own funding. But transformation towards financial self-reliance will be extremely slow and unattainable in any public university with feeble and unproductive academic staff,” he said.

He said public universities must have several sources of funding: government money for operational spending and research, contract research from public organisations and private firms, and earnings from endowments, gifts and tuition fees.
Prof Chinsembu said professors that help the university earn huge amounts of money through contract research could underwrite the financial clout and autonomy of public universities.
“Still, a formidable leadership is needed for a public university to be strongly represented in the outside world of competing national priorities and shrinking financial cake. As ambassador for the university, the Vice-Chancellor should lobby government to ease the scissors effect. Professor Ali Mazrui writing on ‘conquest and counter-conquest’ advised: ‘Weakness is not an adequate currency in the marketplace of power.’ Therefore, a strong leadership is needed for a public university to be capable of defending its own financial interests and needs. A strong leadership is the foremost contour that can ultimately determine a public university’s capacity for successful transformation in the face of the scissors effect, massification, and expectations to deliver high quality graduates and knowledge solutions,” he said.
He said the glaring failure of the Zambian public university was rooted in lack of a strong leadership that could meaningfully impact on institutional transformation, organisational psychology, and financial sustainability.
Prof Chinsembu said to induce transformation, public universities must attract and retain a high concentration of high impact factor academics.
He said stated differently, public universities should rid themselves of deadwood lecturers and professors.
He said a critical mass of professors was the foundation for high quality university education in Zambia, as noted by the Bobby Bwalya Commission of Inquiry in 1997: “The quality of education in the university depends on the presence of a critical mass of professionals, skilled individuals who constitute the academic staff. Without significant attention to retention, motivation and commitment of this critical mass in the university, the problem of quality in the core functions of the university is bound to persist.”

Prof Chinsembu said although government funding and quality of university education were a chicken and egg question, the major problem at the Zambian public university was the public university itself.
He said many public universities have failed to become engines of the knowledge economy as they often struggle with intellectual entrepreneurship and wealth creation.

“Our public universities are at crossroads and there is now an urgent need to find a third way that brings fresh thinking, best ideas, and actionable solutions to the most challenging financial problems facing UNZA and CBU. To navigate UNZA and CBU through the current financial and labour-related headwinds, there is an urgent need to inculcate a new self-awareness and ability to build an entrepreneurial juggernaut that adapts our public universities to the current harsh realities,” he said.

“The public university must harness the intellectual and social and financial capital within and outside the university in order to leverage the university in a way that enables it to cope with changing financial complexities. The public university must devise systems and structures that inspire the students and staff to implement initiatives around a shared vision of collective institutional prosperity and self-reliance,” he said.

He said to wean public universities from government funding in the long-term, there was need to create opportunities for investments, establish and grow endowments through alumni and private sector initiatives, and build a strong foundation for institutional wealth creation, especially through funded chairs, grants, contract research, and university name licencing.

“Besides a strong advocacy for government subventions and payment of tuition fees (in the short term), there is an urgent need to save and raise funds through internal reforms and knowledge entrepreneurship. To dismantle their debts and save the public university from being a basket case, we must devise blueprints to make money from the knowledge economy through the production of innovative knowledge-based products,” he said.

“As the world economic model of wealth creation moves way from the use of raw materials including copper ore, the logic is to convert knowledge into wealth, goods and services based on human intellect. Along this trajectory, our public universities can create income-generation activities that include investments into stocks, mobile phone technology, IT software engineering and Apps, Internet technology, television, smart devices, partnerships with economic zones, biotechnology, green energy generation including solar power, biofuels and biogas, green schemes, land and real estate development, tourism and hospitality, value addition, natural products, phytomedicines, consultancy bureaus, contract research, NGOs, printing and publishing, sector-specific skills training, and so on and so forth.”

Prof Chinsembu said while encouraging the government to increase funding to public universities, it was important that UNZA and CBU turn to the financial sector and markets by engaging into investments and profit-making enterprises.

He said it was also important to rebrand the corporate outlooks of UNZA and CBU, to re-inspire public acceptability, reform curricula to become market-driven and relevant, create viable linkages with the wider society and industry, and reposition UNZA and CBU at the centre of economic and public life in Zambia and the world.

Prof Chinsembu said the writing was on the wall.
“Government is reminding academic staff at UNZA and CBU to forgo their mistaken and false sense of entitlement based on academic pomposity. Mark my words, professors will soon be reduced to council workers. Without rebranding our public universities to fit the harsh financial typography, the 21 July 1971 words of former UNZA Registrar, Edward A. Ulzen, will continue to irk us: ‘It is no exaggeration to state that the future of UNZA [and CBU] hangs in the balance’. If the Zambian public university must wither and die – in order to rebrand and achieve meaningful financial transformation and self-reliance – then so be it!” said Prof Chinsembu.

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