Human capital enables countries to harness skills, knowledge, and innovation to grow their economies and improve the well-being of their citizens. The significance of education and knowledge to a country cannot be over emphasized. In many countries education is viewed as a fundamental human right. It is one of the fundamental criteria to quantify the growth, development and improvement of any country. In today’s knowledge-driven economies, access to quality education and the chances for development are two sides of the same coin. The human mind makes possible all development achievements, from health advances and agricultural innovations to efficient public administration and private sector growth. For countries to reap these benefits fully, they need to unleash the potential of the human mind. Education unleashes this potential.
And yet university education in Zambia is in crisis and its current state prevents universities from making an effective contribution to national development. Permit me to share my thoughts on the challenges facing universities in Zambia. As a graduate and former faculty member of the University of Zambia, coupled with my experience of teaching at universities abroad, I am uniquely positioned to analyze what is wrong with our national university system. I would like to share my thoughts with others in hopes of contributing to the solution of the problems in our universities.
At the outset, I would like to point out that unlike the current Minister of Higher Education in Zambia, I do not pretend to know everything about universities. I always believed in the philosophy that when you come across a person who claims to know it all there are only two possibilities, either the person is a genius and they are very few geniuses in the world or the person is ignorant which is more likely as there are many people in the world who do not know that what they think know. A PhD is a research degree. In itself it does not mean that you know everything. It is the research that one produces as a result of the skills learned from that qualification that make a true academic and intellectual. The earlier our Minister of Higher Education works up to this fact the better for herself, the country and education in the country.
Universities in Zambia have grappled with student and staff upheavals for almost all their existence. Government and management reactions have generally been ad hoc, in the main reactive and fail to address the underlying cause of the problems facing the institutions. The problems will not be resolved by the Ministry of Higher Education interfering in the affairs of the universities. The issues that bedevil the operations of universities in Zambia, are more complex than that. Besides, one would have to explain how come the great universities of the world, Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, Sorbonne, Cornell, Hamburg, etc., are autonomous and are not run by the country’s ministries of education. It is completely unheard of that a Government Minister is involved in the running of the universities in these countries. The phenomenon of ministers of education being involved in the day to day work of the universities is essentially African. It has its roots in the African reverence for political office above anything else. The problems at the Universities are a result of the fact that the institutions are completely underfunded and have lost direction and are not engaged in pursuing the ideals for which they were established. The institutions are not run competently, have failed to establish academic traditions to speak of, have largely institutionalized academic mediocrity, have failed to create a culture of learning for their staff and students. Faculty research grants which previously existed at the University of Zambia in the seventies are now unheard of. Office and classroom facilities are dilapidated, overcrowded and badly maintained.
History of the crisis
The University of Zambia challenges have a long history and predate the current administration and are by no means easily soluble. The current administration practices have further exacerbated the situation. Rather than focus on their tasks, the universities are spending their energies playing politics as evidenced by the recent controversy over the award of honorary degrees. In order to begin to address the situation, we need to get back to the vision of the University as eloquently outlined in the University of Zambia founding document-the Lockwood Commission. The University was to be a centre of learning and research in Zambia. A centre that would take its place among the great universities of the world. Today the University of Zambia in neither a centre for learning or research. Its research output is very low. The reasons include a lack of research-experienced faculty, given the brain drain, heavy teaching loads, moonlighting by faculty, lack of resources-such as library facilities, information and communications technology infrastructure, and the absence of well equipped laboratories. There is need to redirect the institution to its central mission-which is to cultivate the mind and promote intellectual life.
The destruction of the University of Zambia started during the Kaunda era. He constantly interfered in the appointments of Vice Chancellors. An example was the premature removal of Professor Lameck Goma as Vice Chancellor in 1976 in breach of his contract. This was done at a critical time in the development of the University of Zambia. Goma understood the mission and the needs of the University. More importantly, he understood the role of a University in a developing country. He had excellent academic credentials to lead a University and unquestionable integrity and objectivity to run it efficiently. In a University, leadership is based on knowledge and not compulsion. Goma was aided by the 1965 University Act that left the running of the university to academics with no interference from the Ministry of Education. After the departure of Goma, the University act was reformed and gave more powers to the Ministry of Education to intervene in the affairs of the university. This is buttressed in the current University Act which makes the universities more less departments in the Ministry of Higher Education. The University was quickly transformed into a parastatal style operation with privileged administrators bent on improving their perks and imposing their authority on staff. The decision making process in the administration quickly became autocratic. All academic organs became subservient to the Central Administration. In a University, it is hard if not impossible to impose academic decisions. This would be against the very idea of a university. For decisions to gain acceptance they have to be sound. In this new atmosphere, the focus of the academics staff was transformed to fighting for the administrative positions and better conditions of service. This is how one got a better house and a car and a better salary. That is not typical in a University worth its name. It is inconceivable that a Professor at Harvard, Cornell and Oxford would wish to trade his or her academic position for a registrar in his or her University. The administrators, in a proper academic environment, in turn accept that the role of the administration is to create an atmosphere that is conductive to learning and teaching. The measure of success of any University administration should be the extent to which it facilitates the academic enterprise. The immediate result of these developments at the University of Zambia in the late 1970s and 1980s was mass exodus of senior academics to the detriment of the future growth of the University. Later, of course, the exodus became a stampede as the country’s economic crisis took hold and impacted negatively on the purchasing power of salaries offered by the University.
It is important that we address the problems of the Universities in Zambia, because, human resource development is critical to national development. Human development is a process in which the citizens of a nation acquire the knowledge and skill necessary for occupational tasks and for other social, cultural, intellectual, and political roles that are part and parcel of a vibrant, modern, technological and democratic society. No country in the world has developed without a highly skilled population. The Asian miracle would not have been possible without huge investments in human resources development. Leading industrialized countries, without, exception, spend a fortune on education and regard it as the engine that oils their economies. In terms of attracting foreign investment, one of the major considerations of any investor is the level of skills prevalent in the host State. An uneducated population adds to the cost of production. In such a State, an investor would have to invest a great deal of money in training to make the labour force usable or have to import skilled manpower from elsewhere to fill the vacuum. Zambia needs to develop competitive goods for the world market in order for the country to do that it needs a labor force that can create wealth and produce qualitative goods that can compete in the international market.
Suggestions as to solutions to the problems of the University
In order to begin to solve the problems of the Universities, four things need special attention. There is need: (a) the universities need to be independent and in charge of the academic enterprise. (b) provide the Universities with strong academic leadership; (c) create an environment that is conductive to learning and academic excellence through restructuring the academic organs of the University and developing policy documents and guidelines on academic standards, research, sexual harassment, etc.; (d) reform the financing arrangements for students entering the University and (e) give the University adequate resources to be able to run its programs. The universities need to be independent. Accountability and oversight of universities should be through the University Council. Persons appointed to the Council should be men and women who have the relevant educational and or business background to sit on a University Council. They must bring something to the University. This would require that they have something more than just having a University degree. Council members should be given strong powers and should be clearly in charge of the University. They should approve the budget, appointment of senior officers of the University and the conditions of service of all University employees. This will require a Council that is knowledgeable about the way universities operate. The trouble with a mediocre Council is that it would be unable to analyze information and inevitably becomes completely dependent on the University administration for information on which to base its decisions. Information and knowledge is power. However, the powers of Councils should not extend to academic programs. That is an area that should be the exclusive responsibility of the University Senate and Academic Boards of studies.
The Vice-Chancellor of a university should always be the kind of person who can give academic leadership to the institution. He or she should have a vision of what the University should be. Many great Universities invest a great deal of money and time in the recruitment of competent leadership for their Universities. It must be remembered that no University can have a greater reputation than that of its leadership, academic staff, students and research output. Academic governance is not the same thing as running a Government ministry or a parastatal or private corporation. Academic governance is a shared enterprise between the University’s teaching and research staff and its administration. A Vice Chancellor is entrusted with the pastoral care of the faculty and students. The faculty and students in turn, have an obligation to maintain an environment that enables the Vice Chancellor to function effectively. Some tension between the academic staff and the administration is inevitable and is not unhealthy. At the same time, academic staff and the administration have a shared responsibility to build a community of scholars. A community of scholars is more than a gathering of individuals each pursuing his or her own thing. It means nurturing and advancing the larger good of the University.
For the University to realize its full potential for intellectual excellence, it must also nurture excellence. A University must attend to the fundamental human needs of all its members -academic staff, students and non academic staff. It must appreciate them and encourage them in their work. It must promote the values that make a vibrant academic community possible: civility, trust, inclusiveness, collegiality. A house of intellect needs social and emotional housekeeping. Academic staff and administrators may have different stands on issues because of their different perceptions, construed as a result of places they occupy and the roles they perform. In many situations, academic staff see themselves as members of their disciplines or sub discipline first, and as citizens of their University second. Academic staff authority in governance and in the classroom is predicated on their intellectual status as scholars and teachers. The primary responsibility for determining institutional academic policy should rest in the academic staff. They should have substantial control over courses and academic staff appointments and the planning and development of university curriculum. Co-equality in governance can be described at least in part, by the images of democratic politics: separation of powers (faculty as the legislative branch, administration as the executive branch); checks and balances (by dual decision making) governance by consent, not coercion and leadership as a form of service.
Leadership in a University should not be driven by centrifugal forces. It is leadership among pears. It is leadership based on a process of consultation, negotiation, reasoned analysis, moral persuasion and application of incentives and disincentives, all aimed at harnessing the different interests to give shape and coherence to the academic enterprise. The prime task of a Vice-Chancellor of a University is educational statesmanship- one, providing a sense of direction- where is the institution going? Two, developing a strategic plan-how will the institution get there with all deliberate speed? Without a harmonious and well articulated educational vision-a dream of what might be-an institution will be adrift Professors and lecturers and other constituents have to be mobilized to share in the creation and ownership of the vision, for only they can make it happen. The art of administration is arranging available means, ideas, money and people to achieve desired ends. The main, if not the only way of improving a University is by raising the quality of its academic staff and its research output. The University administration, should for instance, be at the forefront of developing avenues for academic staff to publish their research. Zambians trying to publish abroad run into difficulties because their manuscripts usually have not gone through the same rigorous peer scrutiny and advising as the case is with those submitted by scholars based in these countries.
Specific measures to improve the academic environment at the University of Zambia
One may ask as to what concrete measures should one take to improve the Universities in Zambia. In my view one of the first things that should be done is to go back to the founding document elaborated by the Lockwood Commission, the 1965 University Act, and documents on promotions and recruitment of staff developed in the early life of the University. The documents contain ideas which are still valid today. They have unfortunately been lost in the University of Zambia troubled recent history. The University of Zambia has strayed dangerously away from the ideals and its tasks articulated in the Lockwood report and the early documents. In addition I would recommend the following measure:
1. The independence of the University should be maintained. As suggested earlier, the University should be provided with a strong and competent Council. The role of Council should be clearly spelt out. The University administration should be accountable to the Council on matters of the budget, appointment of staff, and the general running of the University. The Chairman of Council should be a respected citizen and should at a minimum be a University graduate. One cannot supervise an institution one has only a nodding acquaintance with.
2. The Ministry of Education should leave the University to function on its own. The current minister of education clearly does not understand how universities function and displays an unacceptable level of arrogance. She incorrectly regards universities as departments of her ministries. She dictates policies and comments on room allocation at university halls of residence. The Ministry is represented on the university council and that is enough. Otherwise, there would be no use for the existence of the University Council. There is always great temptation on the part of the Ministry of Education to treat the University as just another school. It is not and this fact should be appreciated. The Ministry does not have the skills to control the University. The question of its operation should be a matter for the University Council and the Academic organs of the University.
3. The University Senate should be the centre of academic policy making. It should be strong and well structured and representative. In its composition, it should be balanced between the need for senior academics to sit on it and provide the University their experience and the need for all ranks of the academic staff to have a voice on it. The Senate should be the primary organ for academic decision making.
4. The University administration should be at the service of the academic community. Its role should be implementing decisions of the primary organs of the University. I mean here decisions of the University Council, Senate and Academic Boards.
5. The University of Zambia should endeavor to encourage social, cultural and sports facilities at the University. A University should not simply be a matter of classrooms, library and dormitory buildings. A University, should be a centre of culture, sports and the theatre. It should provide an excellent opportunity for participation in and enjoyment of art, athletics, cinema, music and the theater. These activities are not irrelevant to the academic enterprise. They build and develop character and the spirit of cooperation and through them the students learn to aspire to be patient and understanding of fellow human beings and cultivate hope and optimism about them. Many educators would agree that a significant part of the education experience in any University takes place outside the classroom in extra curricular activities where students learn how to work together as well as to compete, how to exercise leadership as well as build consensus. Many of the Worlds greatest Universities have produced not only great minds but also the worlds greatest athletes and cultural leaders.
The Financing of the University
6. The Government should give the University adequate resources to meet its programs. True, this will be a very difficult task for the government to achieve, particularly, in the current economic environment. Unfortunately, in the short term there is no other source of money outside Government. Any other view, no matter how eloquently presented, is wishful thinking. In the long term, the University will have to tap the resources of corporations and its former students. The problem with fund raising is that the institution’s ability to raise money has a direct relationship to its academic reputation. The Government should also consider the establishment of a National Lottery whose profits will go to fund the Universities. In New York State, USA, the State lottery system is a major source of funding for education. The Government financial assistance to the University should be by way of a direct grant from Ministry of Finance to the University. The Ministry of Education has the major responsibility to run the entire educational system of the country. That is a massive job and we should not add to its already enormous responsibilities by involving it in University financing.
7. The University of Zambia should have a development office whose primary responsibility would be to raise money to finance University activities. This office should be the nerve centre of fund raising. The University should not wait for Government to give them a grant before they can have a swimming pool or a gym. They can do that through fund raising. In many Universities, the development office, regularly engages in aggressive fund raising. Unfortunately, any meaningful fund raising will have to wait until the reputation of the University improve. The name of the game in fund raising is that if you have a good reputation you attract the money, if you do not it is hard to. No one wants to throw money at mediocrity.
I would like to emphasize the point that Zambia needs to turn its Universities into major teaching and research institutions with international reputation. The country should not settle for stagnation and mediocrity. It is a shame that University education in Zambia is still a privilege reserved for the very few. There is no way that Zambia can effectively develop without developing the human skills which are the most crucial element in the process of development. A society is said to have progressed when it has mastered a higher level of acquisition of science, technology and managerial skills. This is the primer for development-like the needle in the gun which activates the billet to go forward- you cannot raise the level of productive forces unless you raise the level of human skills through education.
(William Nelson Cromwell Professor of International and Comparative Law, and Director of the Berger International Legal Studies Program Cornell Law School and Director of Cornell University’s Institute for African Development)