“banner728.gif"

Higher Education and the National Crisis

No earthly country has no problems. But some countries have far too few problems compared to this so-called Christian Nation, Zambia. To borrow from the philosopher Thomas Kuhn, every scientific paradigm is faced with problems. That’s why the paradigm exists to resolve those problems. But problems can turn into crises and the paradigm is under threat. Not under threat from outside, but from within. The paradigm’s own failure to solve its problems are the seeds of its downfall. According to Kuhn, problems become crises when they are too many, too serious, or last for too long without being resolved.

Going by these criteria from philosophy of science, by analogy, is the Zambian government in crisis? Are the problems under the Patriotic Front too many, too serious, and have lasted too long? Vernon Mwaanga says it would be folly for anyone to think things are well in Zambia. And he ably justified his claim. In this article, I want to link our national crisis with higher education (HE) especially grant-aided public institutions, the University of Zambia (UNZA) and the Copperbelt University (CBU).

The Bible puts it very categorically, and I agree, that lack of knowledge can lead to a people perishing. Plato’s philosophy is an exaltation of knowledge; the search for ultimate reality and the truth; the search for clarity of meaning; and the search for true morality to guide both our private lives and political institutions. So much was Plato committed to the knowledge that rulers for his kallipolis (ideal or beautiful state) had to be philosopher-kings. This is not rule by the educated, simpliciter.

Plato’s rulers were knowledgeable but, in addition, they had to be virtuous and in possession of proven practical wisdom. Plato was aware that an educated fool is not an oxymoron or contradiction. So, he required that his rulers also receive moral education and demonstrate it in administration of public affairs. Rulers thus trained would preside justly over a meritocratic materially prosperous and secure state. Can we learn from Plato? Could Zambia’s crisis be due to the low premium we place on knowledge and moral education in our private lives and public organisations? Memory lane.

UNIP and the MMD

The founders of the Zambian Republic exhibited great thirst for knowledge. My history isn’t too exact. Those who want the proper history must look elsewhere, sorry. But Kenneth Kaunda is an intellectual, a statesperson per excellence, a visionary. Both his domestic and foreign policies were guided by an ideology. Although the late philosopher Ronnie Khul Bwalya criticised Kaundaism as “not philosophical with attendant arguments”, he acknowledged the ideology “was formed in all seriousness for the purpose of completing the liberation process”. Partly because Kaunda had an intellectual ethos guiding his politics, he found concord with many great leaders of his time stretching from Africa, Latin America, to Asia. Kabusha takolelwe bowa: “Who are President Lungu’s political friends internationally?”

With a humble formal education, Kaunda set in motion a robust socio-economic developmental agenda in line with his humanist paradigm. He galvanised the nation to build the University of Zambia. A people’s university. On the day KK was unveiled as the university’s Chancellor, he wept genuine tears of deep sadness and joy. He wept with sadness at the colonial educational legacy that had ostracised on racial lines the indigenous population from meaningful higher education. He cried with joy for the dawn of a new day in Zambian higher education.

The university would be the intellectual springboard for national development and governance. During his rule, Kaunda proudly presided over the University of Zambia as Chancellor. This may be a sign of his passion for HE, dedicating his attention to ensuring the institution did not lack. The University of Zambia came complete with a publishing outfit, UNZA Press which ran then internationally prominent journals. The Kenneth Kaunda Foundation further shows Kaunda valued knowledge as the cornerstone of his nation-building project.

Intellectualism flourished as young men and women from the breadth and width of the country trekked to Lusaka to drink at the fountain of knowledge from fine brains, both local and international. Several monographs and edited volumes dated during the Kaunda tenure attest to the University being a top institution during the Kaunda years. Oral tradition from lecturers and alumni alike speak of a golden age of a university that was a continental icon.

Frederick Chiluba pretty much hired graders and razed to the ground almost everything Kaunda had built. Academic morale hit its nadir under the stylish, well-spoken Pentecostal president. Education wasn’t his cup of tea. His hostility to HE disoriented some of our best brains. And Botswana et al said, “Thank you very much. Just what we need to develop our country!” The University of Zambia plummeted on university rankings. A shambolic academic calendar saw UNZA lose its place as a destination of choice for international students as well as some local students, exchange programmes became unsustainable.

To be sure, Chiluba assembled what appeared to be a powerful team of educated individuals. Unfortunately, he told them it was time to eat, not to work. After his downfall, the courts were not short of professors and PhDs implicated in plundering national resources. That’s what happens when the head of the fish is rotten. Chiluba was more concerned about appearing tall, dandy, pious, and educated. He was quick to announce a Christian nation that is still haunting the nation nearly three decades later.

Present Day: The Patriotic Front

Michael Sata, with little known education, appointed lecturers to his cabinet and senior government positions. He brought in from the UK a renowned engineer to resuscitate our railway transport. He knew Zambia had lost vast human resource to the diaspora and extended an olive branch to them. Contrasted with Lusambo who sees our emigrants as toilet cleaners, Sata saw in the diaspora a critical human resource that could power Zambia’s human development.

Sata remunerated lecturers competitively and timely. The morale in public HE was high, and a number of lecturers sponsored themselves for further studies, selflessly bolstering the number of PhDs at the university and in the country. Although Sata correctly diagnosed educated people as the worst cowards, he passionately believed in their knowledge as key for national development. And he was very confident surrounded by educated people! Some educated people will let you down, but it’s always the wiser bet. Unfortunately, it will be impossible to evaluate Sata’s legacy on HE because he was unwell and died too soon. But someone else was unleashed. Sata’s very anti-thesis.

The PF under President Edgar Lungu is ostensibly anti-intellectual. The president will host just about anybody. But he will not host the University of Zambia Management or Union. Davies Mwila is the PF chief administrative officer. Mumbi Phiri his deputy. Given Lubinda is marshalling the constitutional amendment process. Tutwa Ngulube is the party’s foremost legal mind. Bowman Lusambo, aka, President of Lusaka, has been tasked consecutively with overseeing two of the country’s most economically vital provinces, the Copperbelt and Lusaka. Davies Mwila has publicly shown contempt for educated people because they ask about inflation and exchange rates under the PF. Exaltation of religion and religious ‘solutions’ to the country’s crises is the icing on the cake of the PF’s anti-intellectualism.

The PF have a very haphazard approach to HE and UNZA and CBU have been badly hit; from the toxicity of Professor Nkandu Luo to the incoherence of Dr Brian Mushimba. CBU and UNZA are in purgatory with no redemption in sight. If the little money for HE can be shuttled to better funded ministries, it’s clear HE is not top priority for the PF. Even when the equation is straightforward: If the public universities are not funded adequately and on time, lecturers will not teach and research well. If lecturers are not teaching and researching optimally, the students are being half-baked. If the students are being half-baked, society will stagnate. We end up in Thomas Hobbes’ chaotic state of nature in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. And under the PF we have tasted this life, but it could get worse or better!

Way forward

UNZA and CBU do not need privatisation to flourish. That’s cynical and reckless. They need government political will, a sensible opposition, an alert civil society, a concerned public, and courageous intellectuals. Mushimba should calm down and not try to be populist with HE. With his entire HE team, he needs to visit UNZA, CBU and get a first-hand impression. Talk to management, staff, and students earnestly. Stop sending PF party functionaries to pontificate about HE, demean professors, and issue threats to academics.

Appoint managers not based on political correctness but professional women and men with managerial or corporate pedigree, acumen, and clout. Ability to dissect mosquitoes, classify books, split atoms, sequence genes, analyse data, or philosophise does not translate automatically into managerial competence that UNZA/CBU needs direly. Councils must not be an employment opportunity but a service opportunity. Appoint service-seekers and not job-seekers; people who have made it in life and not those who want to make it quick via auctioning and syphoning public varsities.

Through well-researched questions in parliament, op-eds, tweets, the opposition can make the government deliver better in HE and everywhere. Or show that they are a viable alternative come 2021. So far no opposition is indicating they have a tangible roadmap for HE. HE needs a paradigm shift and not necessarily regime change. Regime change without paradigm shift is merely a chimera. What’s your plan to bring UNZA global ranking into 1000s and CBU into 2000s? The opposition here are challenged.

j_kapembwa@yahoo.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *