It’s almost a month since Higher Education Minister Prof Nkandu Luo closed down the Copperbelt University indefinitely, and Zambia is soldiering on in silence like there is nothing remarkably wrong with that. There is no reference to the unfortunate closure of the institution in government speeches, no indication as to when it may be reopened and there seems to be nobody making a big deal out of it.
Last week, UNZA lecturer Tiyaonse Kabwe said the crisis at the public institutions has escalated to such magnitudes that only President Edgar Lungu can step in and resolve. He says the Minister of Higher Education cannot help because she has no sympathy, she is threatening unions with de-registration, threatening lecturers and employees with dismissals and doesn’t want to dialogue with workers because she believes they do not match up to her intellectual capacity.
Yes, Mr Kabwe is right to a great extent, but unfortunately, he is asking for a solution from the problem. If President Lungu’s priorities were upright, CBU would not have been shut down and UNZA would not be in such a mess. So the Head of State cannot intervene in a crisis that he is part of. The reason why CBU is closed is hardly because students and lecturers are unruly, but because government has no money left to fund the institution.
In fact, government is looking for a similar excuse to shut down the University of Zambia in Lusaka as well. That is why they are allowing the situation to deteriorate without intervention. They want to push lecturers and students to the limit so that any hostile reaction can be declared as the cause for shutting UNZA down.
It was disheartening last month when UNZA management made a desperate plea for financial support, only to be told “learn to fund yourselves, government has other obligations”. This was as if UNZA management is a dysfunctional body that does nothing and completely relies on government grants for all its operations. That is not true.
There is no public university in Africa which meets its own wage bill to the extent that UNZA is doing, at 78 per cent. The institution has been doing what it can to raise resources already, but all its revenue goes to paying salaries at the expense of financing academic activities, research, operations, infrastructure development and maintenance.
The monthly grant that UNZA gets from government is only K16.9 Million, which only contributes a meager 28 per cent of the net wage bill and only 17 per cent of the gross wage bill. The institution then has to mobilize the balance of 78 per cent to pay salaries, and even when it does, it still cannot afford to pay gross salaries. This means that the university is not meeting its obligations on PAYE, ZRA, NAPSA, etc. This further means UNZA can’t pay bills for services it consumes such as electricity, water, internet, security, cleaning services etc. This situation has led to the institution owing over K2.5 billion in debt! Is that normal under a functioning government?
In many countries in Africa, the government funds the wage bill fully so that whatever revenue is generated internally by universities goes to support operations, academic activities, etc. But in Zambia, government funds public universities as if they are doing the institutions a favour, as if they are not obliged to.
If government is paying March salaries to lecturers at the end of April, it means April salaries will be pushed towards the end of May or June. No worker can be motivated with such conditions. To make matters worse, hundreds of retirees have not been paid from 2011 and the majority of them are still on the UNZA payroll. Serving employees are owed in excess of K600 million in gratuities.
Surely, we can’t be surprised why members of staff at these institutions are demotivated. We can’t be surprised to see students getting infuriated because they are not receiving the full attention they require from their lecturers. This is not how universities ought to be funded. It just goes to prove that there is simply no sustainable formula for financing public universities in Zambia.
We have gotten the formula for financing university education very wrong as a country and sadly, the Ministry of Higher Education is pushing ahead on this path of destroying UNZA, CBU and Higher Education in general in the country. The impact of these negative actions will reflect on the Zambian economy not long from now.
Dear students and lecturers who are watching the painful death of UNZA and CBU, please know that the nation relies on you as witnesses to this murder and you must not forget the faces of the killers of your learning institutions. Soon, a time will come when these murderers of our education system will need your recommendation to continue in government. Never forget what they did, and most importantly, never forget their arrogance.