A scandal has arisen in which Minister of Higher Education Dr Brian Mushimba is accused of using his position to exert pressure on the University of Zambia (UNZA) to pass his wife, Brenda, who is a student in the School of Medicine.

But UNZA claims that Brenda appealed through normal channels to have her papers remarked.

Meanwhile Dr Mushimba neither picked calls nor responded to a query by press time.

Well-placed sources told News Diggers! that Brenda, a 4th year student on the Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery (MBChB) degree programme at Ridgeway Campus, had failed two courses this academic year, which meant that she was supposed to repeat instead of proceeding to the 5th year of study.

“The UNZA School of Medicine results were published in October and showed that Brenda had failed two courses. One is PTM 4310, which is Medical Microbiology, and the other is PTM 4210, which is Pathology; these two courses are at the heart of learning both infectious diseases and pathological conditions. She was taking 4 courses and her failing two of them meant that she was supposed to repeat the two courses before proceeding to year 5 of her studies”, disclosed one source.

The source said the minister’s wife who enrolled at the university around 2010 had, however, been passed in unclear circumstances after her husband intervened.

“After learning of his wife’s failure to meet the passing mark for both courses, Honorable Mushimba summoned the UNZA Vice-Chancellor Prof Luke Mumba to his office to establish why the wife had failed and possibly ascertain if anything could be done about her case. We do not know for certain what happened at the Ministry when they met, but Prof Mumba subsequently changed Brenda’s marks in the two courses she had failed. Instead of the fail grades, he gave her a complementary mark of at least 50 in both courses. So Brenda started her 5th year in late October. We do not know what exactly transpired behind the scenes, but everything seems to have moved quickly after the Minister phoned the Vice-Chancellor,” said the source.

The source expressed concern that the suspicious manner in which Brenda’s case was handled had the potential to demoralise lecturers and create a dangerous precedent.

“Was it even ethical for the Minister to get involved since he is dealing with an issue that affects a spouse? The normal appeal route is that if a student feels aggrieved about their final exam grade after the publication of final results, they can file a formal appeal to the Vice-Chancellor, requesting for independent examiners to re-mark their exam scripts. The Vice-Chancellor will, through the Dean of the relevant school, inform the affected course lecturers that a student has appealed against their grade and requested for their paper to be remarked by examiners who are familiar with the subject. This process should be transparent and beyond reproach because the aim is to make sure that the correct thing is done,” the source said.

“It is possible sometimes that a lecturer may act unprofessionally and fail a student even when the student deserves to pass, so the verdict of independent examiners is important to both the student and the lecturers concerned. If the examiner passes the affected student, this outcome ensures justice for the complainant who may have been unfairly treated. It also enables the lecturers to know where they may have erred and in instances where a lecturer may have acted unprofessionally, the pro-student verdict of the independent examiner ensures that they are reprimanded for their unprofessional conduct”.

The source said lecturers were shocked that Brenda had proceeded to her fifth year.

“What is surprising about Brenda’s case is that the lecturers are in the dark about the outcome of this process. They don’t know who remarked Brenda’s papers, if at all anybody did and what marks they gave her. They were all just surprised to learn that Brenda has been passed by the Vice-Chancellor. It is not correct to make lecturers feel as if they do not know what they are doing and to encourage students to think that the Vice-Chancellor would easily bail them out in case they failed a course or two. Who remarked her papers? Why were the lecturers of the two courses she failed not told where they went wrong? If they acted unprofessionally, why have they not been disciplined so that they do not treat students that way? Was Brenda passed because the husband complained to the VC? It is important to handle these issues in the right way because they create precedents,” said the source.

Another source said it was not the first time Brenda had failed more than one course.

“I have heard assertions from people connected to the minister that maybe some lecturers just hate Brenda or are unprofessional. I can tell you that that is total rubbish. The truth is that Brenda is a weak student who has never proceeded from one academic year to another without repeating at least two courses since she joined the School of Medicine in 2010. In a number of cases, she has had to repeat some courses two or three times before passing. This explains why it has taken her nearly ten years to move from 3rd year in 2010, which is the point at which she joined the MBChB degree programme, to 4th year in 2019. How is it possible that all lecturers at Ridgeway who offer the courses she has failed hate her or are unprofessional?” the source asked.

Another source revealed that Brenda was last year excluded from the University of Zambia and it took the intervention of the Vice-Chancellor to have her reinstated onto the MBChB programme.

“Last year, for instance, Brenda failed 3 of the 4 courses she was taking. In the one course that she passed, she got 49, which is a mark below the pass mark, and the concerned lecturer upgraded her mark to 50 on considerate grounds. In the other 3 courses, her performance was so poor that it was beyond redemption. As a result, she was redirected or excluded from UNZA, which means that she was supposed to be removed from the programme. She appealed to the Vice-Chancellor, explaining that she had failed the courses because of being ‘Mrs Honourable’. Brenda said she did not know that being a wife to a Cabinet minister in Zambia was such a lot of work. Bizarrely, the Vice-Chancellor gave her a benefit of the doubt and directed that she be reinstated onto the programme on condition that she repeats the whole academic year, including the one course that she had barely passed. This is how she repeated 4th year, from which she has now failed two courses. The Vice-Chancellor has again intervened, giving her a complementary pass in both courses, which then enables her to proceed to 5th year. Brenda’s new lecturers in 5th year are now saying that it seems failing her in any course, no matter how deserving, is strictly prohibited since the Vice-Chancellor, perhaps intimidated by the Minister, consistently overrules them and finds ways of bringing her back. This is totally unacceptable. We cannot destroy UNZA like this. Standards are all that we have got and we are talking about the training of doctors here, who will be dealing with people’s lives tomorrow”, said the source.

But reacting to this in a statement, Thursday, UNZA spokesperson Brenda Bukowa said the minister’s wife appealed through proper channels.

“The University of Zambia (UNZA) would like to bring to your attention that the University follows an established process when attending to all examination related appeals. In this regard, contrary to the allegation purporting that the Minister of Higher Education, Dr Brian Mushimba has used his position to exert pressure on UNZA to pass his wife, Mrs. Brenda Mushimba, UNZA would like to rebut this and clarify that a due process was followed to attend to Mrs. Mushimba’s appeal as explained below. To begin with, examination related appeals are made in writing to the Vice Chancellor in his capacity as Chairperson of the University of Zambia Senate. In this case Mrs. Mushimba formally appealed in writing to the Chairperson of the University Senate who then referred the matter to the Dean, School of Medicine and in turn the Dean consulted with the Head of Department in the programme that Mrs. Mushimba is registered for the two courses,” Bukowa stated.

“Further, it is important to note that, after the due consultations were made within the School of Medicine, it was decided that the two courses which were a subject of appeal should be remarked. In this process independent external and internal examiners were appointed for each course. The examiners separately reviewed the examination papers in question and each of them submitted their report to the Dean. After the remark, the Chairperson of Senate (who is also the Vice Chancellor) received a report from the Dean advising that the examiners had passed the student. It was recommended therefore, that the student be given a pass in both courses so that she can proceed to the 5th year.”

She stated that there was no such things as “complimentary” passes at UNZA.

“UNZA would also like to clarify that there exists no complimentary passes in a remark of an examination as purported. The correct position is that, either a student has passed and is awarded the grades of the remark or has failed. Also of note is that UNZA is an equal player as regards students’ welfare that includes issues involving examination appeals. The University allows all students to be heard in instances where they feel otherwise. This is an age-old practice,” stated Bukowa.

But when asked to avail a copy of Brenda’s appeal letter, Bukowa said she was unable to do so as she was not in the office.

Meanwhile, efforts to get a comment from Dr Mushimba proved futile as he was unresponsive.