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Towards a proposal to fund public universities in Zambia

(Professor of Molecular Biology and Drug Discovery at the University of Namibia)

 

 

Zambians should understand that the University of Zambia (UNZA) is an important institutional physician to help heal Zambia’s current economic infirmity. This is the main reason that UNZA must be at the centre of economic life in Zambia. Sadly, UNZA is a widow. UNZA itself is seriously sick. UNZA is in intensive care, in a coma.

True to its new title of a widow (twenze bantu) UNZA is but the short last line of a paragraph hanging at the top of a page in our nation’s undesirable history. Therefore, we should begin at the beginning, which in this case is, physician heal yourself. I am saying this because despite assurances from government that salaries will now be paid on time, I am disgusted and flabbergasted thatsalaries to academic and support staff at UNZA are constantly delayed. Not long ago, I had sounded warning bells that professors will soon be reduced to council workers.

That being said, without timely payment of salaries, professors are now academically castrated to the extent that they can no longer muster the missionary zeal to speak about the ailing economy. So, I am not surprised that UNZA is not at the epicentre of public economic policy discourse in Zambia. If there are any secret illuminati advising government on economic policy, they are probably thinking from their bellies, not their heads; hence the weird economic policies we see. A public university is a sine qua non for national development. UNZA is a public good. Its importance is even more compelling now as the world enters the 4IR, the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Countries that value economic development should also value public university education. Such countries accord their highest national accolades and honours to highly skilled individuals who constitute the professoriate.

 

There are countries where professors are senior to cabinet ministers and are even issued with diplomatic passports. In such countries, universities are now hiring rarely skilled, multi-talented, multi-disciplinary, inter-disciplinary, and trans-disciplinary professors to prepare and lead national 4IR programmes. In Africa, these efforts are in line with the African Union’s new scientific dream that seeks to use our public universities as catalysts to re-establish a new Wakanda in our lifetime. Governments are creating pools of their most talented and rarely skilled individuals to lead national economic reconstruction efforts.

Alas, due to ill-funding from government, what is happening in the public university sector in Zambia is against the grain. Our public universities can seriously interrogate our ailing economy. Instead of speaking truth to power so that we adequately fund our public universities, the country is superfluously fixated on hare-brained political teletubbies quick to leap to ad hominem attacks about their political opponents. If you think knowledge is expensive, try ignorance. But, let me warn you, panga-wielding political nincompoops have never developed any nation.

So, investments into physical infrastructure such as roads should be directly proportional to investments into mental infrastructure such as 4IR skills. Japan has shown that even without natural resources, a country can still develop by investing into education, technology and production of knowledge-intensive products. In the absence of an apolitical economic council to counsel government, UNZA remains the most viable entity to help diagnose and prescribe antidotes that can heal the nation from this self-inflicted metastatic economic cancer brought on by the burgeoning debt crisis. Given that those in charge of the economy are putatively under constant inebriation, academic staff in our universities can conduct sober analysis of our economy and dispense the most compelling advice.

It is in this vein that we need more strenuous protagonists than antagonists of new policies to finance public universities, including UNZA. Let me hasten to footnote that I am looking at the issue of UNZA with a jaundiced eye, because, we cannot solve all the problems at UNZA simply by throwing more money at it. Be that as it may, I now propose measures to help create a new and more sustainable and more transparent kasaka ka ndalama that can give UNZA a new lease of financial life.

First, this proposal is premised on the understanding that just as necessity is the mother of invention, financial pain is the best incentive for change. Second, this proposal is premised on the Robin Hood principle where the rich support the poor. We see this principle in many cities where rich suburbs pay more for electricity and water than poor suburbs. Here, I argue that we should use this principle to support university education, after all university education is a public good.

I am aware that UNZA has tried a separate financing window for fee-paying students. My understanding is that this has failed. On one hand, public universities cannot charge tuition fees that are socially exclusive. On the other, government through taxpayers cannot afford to fund in full a mass system of university students. My proposal is that the Higher Education Authority of Zambia, established under the Higher Education Act No. 4 of 2013, should provide policy transformation in order to devise a more sustainable financing formula for our public universities.

Such a policy financing formula should include private funding and crowd-funding for public universities. In 1998, percentage government expenditure per student and private funding per student were 48 and 52 in the USA, 43 and 57 in Japan, and 94 and 6 in Sweden, respectively. Thus, the model that we adopt in Zambia should be dependent on our current economic situation. Given the current debt crisis, we should decrease government expenditure per student and increase private funding per student. Therefore, a percentage of our gross domestic product can be reserved for public universities. Remember that university research has an important impact on economic growth and international competitiveness.

So, a relative proportion of GDP can be spent on university education. For example, government can allot that expenditure on public universities should amount to 2 per cent of GDP. We should also substantially increase the numbers of international students as they will generate significant fee income for public universities. Private universities are already tapping into this window of opportunity. However, attracting foreign students requires robust marketing of a public university that is competitive with the best and not one in financial decline.

Finally, we can use the Higher Education Act No. 4 of 2013 to levy private university students and tax private universities. In any case, private universities benefit, for free, from academic staff and knowledge from UNZA. Funds raised from a special tax on private university students and private universities can support public university students and UNZA. This is just a proposal; it is my humble opinion.

I am aware that there is little prospect that the already overburdened taxpayer will provide the additional resource necessary to bring public university education funding up to adequate levels. But these are desperate times for UNZA. Now, more than ever, we as a country shall be wrong to turn our back on UNZA; because, in times of economic crisis, a country should treasure its citadel of knowledge. We can also request donors to supplement academic staff salaries at UNZA, hoping that funds will be used prudently, unlike what we saw with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) scheme.

To solve the challenges at UNZA requires wet towels on our heads, deep reflection, change of mindset, and change of strategy. The era of entitlement economics is fast coming to an end, and public universities must undergo Darwinian evolution, or risk going into extinction. Without a viable plan to raise adequate funding, UNZA will remain on the precipice of academic Armageddon.

Yet, as we face the 4IR, knowledge will be the difference between those nations that fail and those that succeed into the future.

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