The recent deregistration of many University of Zambia (UNZA) students this academic year has erupted serious social tension and anger, with many students resorting to violent and riotous behavior.
However, it is worth noting that it is unthinkable to assume that a handful of privileged individuals are grinning over such challenging times for many students who have been left in a vulnerable position.
But, hard as it may be, these types of ordeals should be faced and treated with utmost honesty and objectivity, lest we all risk being victims of a past we failed to rectify.
As social media commentary sections burn with student’s anger, disappointment, and scorn shot straight into the chest of UNZA management, let no one be blind or forget to ask the question that all parties involved should be asking, ‘…how plausible is it to assert that UNZA management is a hush capitalist system hell-burnt on exploiting the disadvantaged student populace with little or no concern for their economic standing?’
Every person whose feet have been entangled in this problem should seriously ponder such a question and its underlying implications. Mainly because it is important to stop and think about whether the strict stance taken by UNZA management is a needless immiseration of the struggling student or is the issue at hand also springing from an effort to alleviate an equally big problem with the potential to wreak havoc on the ordinary member of staff struggling to make ends meet and all the way up to management itself bearing the weighty load of ensuring the smooth operation of the entire university?
The minute one pauses to seriously think about these questions, it becomes clear that the issue at hand is a bigger problem with far-reaching consequences that supersede the immediate grievances of deregistered students.
However, before we default into pointing fingers as to who is at the heart of this problem, a few important facts need to be established.
Earlier this week, following a directive by management, a number of final-year students sitting for their exam in the first phase and still owing the school were dragged out of examination rooms and told they would only write upon clearance of their current standing balance of tuition fee.
Additionally, in order to make sure that none of the students owing the school attempted to write the exam and go unnoticed, management proceeded to reprint differently colored exam slips as opposed to the white that was issued to students earlier, inclusive of the many students who had not yet paid their final installment. Thus, only registered students with cleared balances were in a position to collect their exam slip that can be recognized during examinations.
These strict directives caused many of the affected students to retaliate and earlier last week on a Tuesday, November 17 at midday, a good number of them took to the Library calling upon their fellow students to stand in solidarity with them during their ordeal.
With growing anger for how management approached the issue, a riot ensued in the late hours of that very day, leaving the entrance to the office of the University of Zambia Vice Chancellor Prof. Luke Mumba on fire.
As history has it, UNZA has been known to be an institution that knows and hears one language; that of protest. However, on the morning following the riot, it became clear to everyone watching Prof. Mumba’s media address that this time, management had its foot on the ground and was resolved on its stance not to allow students that have not paid their tuition fees in full to sit for exams.
Speaking to the media, University Vice-Chancellor Prof. Mumba stated that UNZA occupies a special place in the history of Zambia, and this springs from the fact that when the 1965 Zambian government established it, it was with the intention that Zambians should finally be fully educated to occupy positions of authority manned by foreigners at the time.
He added that without a constant flow of the financial fuel on which the university runs, posterity will judge the current generation harshly because UNZA is a public university with the government as the main shareholder through the Ministry of Higher Education.
And by ‘public’, the implication is that 30 percent of the funding of the university comes from government grants, 60 percent comes from student fees and 10 percent comes from the university’s revenue generated from various innovative business ventures.
So it is worth noting that to be sustainable in the long term, UNZA needs to meet its full economic costs of teaching. This includes the cost of staff, equipment, services, infrastructure as well as investments put into meeting the future needs of students, employers, and society. And it is on such primary concerns that Prof. Mumba’s address was mounted on.
UNZA is in no position to offer free tertiary education, it lucks such an economic muscle, our role is to admit students in all the 13 schools and after giving them a schedule for fees, it is the responsibility of the student thereafter to go and look for support to meet the expenses as laid out on our payment plan,’’Prof. Mumba said.
What Prof. Mumba alluded to is something known by everyone, inclusive of the students that get admitted into UNZA. This is evident in the fact that upon learning that one has been offered a place to study at UNZA, the next logical step is not to have the university itself fund for your educational services that follow.
As we all know, this is the part where the admitted student pauses to ponder possible sources of funding, and these include; the Higher Educations Loans and Scholarship Board (HELSB) operating under the Ministry of Higher Education that aids in financing vulnerable students through the loans scheme, other independent sponsors such as N.G.Os or even other government ministries and finally, those fortunate and able to meet academic expenses fall under self-sponsorship.
Sadly, when calamity strikes, people tend to completely forget how UNZA operates all together. What follows is the old style of trying to fight a deeper problem using a formula that has come at a great cost and failed countless times.
The main point is that unless we all begin to understand that like any public university, UNZA is here to offer a service at a fee, the problem of deregistered students and lecturers going on strike shall continue to plague all parties involved.
We actually do recognize that it is not easy for parents to pay fees all at once! That’s why we have a very flexible method of payment expressed in a plan that every student pays in four installments of 25 percent. And we follow those up with constant reminders because for the university to operate, it needs to run on a smooth budget,”said Prof. Mumba.
It is evident that when students fail to meet their academic expenses, there is a trickledown effect that negatively impacts how the university pays wages to its employee-labor force, functional bills such as electricity, internet services, water, and sanitation.
In situations like these, many students tend to feel the government is not just simply helping enough. However, when you stop and think about it, the government to a large degree has done its part by assisting vulnerable students through the loan scheme.
If you are a student on 100 percent sponsorship, you have the government to thank for!
If you are on 75 percent, you have the government to thank for!
And if you are on 50 percent, you too have something of which to be thankful!
However, one cannot help but feel the problem here is also an ethical one, especially when management takes a strong stance and starts pulling students out of exam rooms or simply have them completely deregistered.
Consider the case of a deregistered third-year student by the name of Richard Tembo who is on 75 percent. Tembo expressed great displeasure in management because he felt the stern decision they took was so abrupt and inconsiderate, especially that it has been made during the exam period.
The decision by management was quite unfortunate and has come at a bad time. Looking at the financial crisis and the Corona situation, everything was just so unfortunate and bad for the students. If Zambia can default to pay their debate, who are students not to default when we are in the same economic situation,Tembo said.
He added that in as much as the money students pay is used to run the institution, management should have at least allowed students who paid their second last installment to write their exams because that is a surety that they will finish paying the last installment in due course.
Mr. Tembo further told the Lusaka Star that he has withdrawn from the university despite being on 75 percent and has decided to continue his life by joining the Zambia Army considering the fact that prior to the problem at hand, he had been shortlisted.
And Caristo Mumba a student from the School of Business studies felt that this is a time for management to sympathize with students and their parents because COVID-19 left a lot of homes financially handy capped.
There is financial difficulty everywhere you look and this is not the first time when UNZA students have failed to pay their tuition fees on time, this has been going on for years and people have always been allowed to write their exams, so why should things change this time around? What’s worse at a time like this,” said Mumba.Mumba said.
Mumba added that now is the time to let students write their exams and hold on to their results as it is evident that everyone is financially challenged.
However, unlike many students fighting management tooth and nail for its directive, Mr. Mumba acknowledged the trickledown effect on students, if they are unwilling to pay their outstanding balances.
We often times mock the institution for its dilapidated hostels, the poor sanitation and the failure by the school to finish building the new hostels that are coming up by the Vet area, but this is because it is incumbent on the student pockets to finance such ventures all by itself, and because of student’s failure to pay fees, such projects have stored for years,he said.
Mr. Mumba also stressed that if students are going to complain about their deregistration, they should also be ready to complain about overworked lecturers that go unpaid for months.
Furthermore, as vulnerable students rail with management, many have been of the idea that the Ministry of Higher Education would prove to be a place of refuge in a time like this, but Higher Education Minister Brian Mushimba washed his hands clean from the registration ordeal, saying the matter is entirely between UNZA management and the student populace.
In a statement issued by the University of Zambia Student Union (UNZASU) through the Minister of Information James Milner Kazembe, the union stated that it has not ceased from having meetings with management through the office of the Registrar. In one breath UNZASU did not slack back in saying ‘we encourage our students and guardians who can solicit for some payments in this period to pay whatever they can towards the tuition fees so as to enable the smooth running of our institution.’
It is very easy for anyone who has not fully understood the gravity of the underlying issue at hand to assume UNZASU is being double-tongued. Plus, a number of students have aired suggestions like management should compromise and allow students to sit for their exams and simply just withhold results.
Unfortunately, Prof. Mumba was quick to state that such propositions have proved futile and of no substantial benefit to the university especially at a time like this when it has exhausted its annual budget.
When we allow students to write their exams, a significant number of those students do not come back to pay thus creating a financial gap for the school, and when results are withheld, students mount pressure on management claiming that it is those results they need in order to find jobs and pay the institution, something that doesn’t happen,said Prof. Mumba.
The VC did not hold back to the state that allowing students to write their exams without fully paying their fees is actually a crime for which UNZA can fall victim in the hands of a lawsuit.
Allow me to paraphrase the Public Finance Management Act No.1 of 2018, which says that any C.E.O of a public institution who fails to collect public revenue, in this case student fees, commits an offense, so allowing you to sit for exams minus paying is simply a crime,he said.
He added that it is such an approach or formula of handling student payment issues that have seen the school left to hang dry with student credits amounting to about K57 million in total.
Fortunately enough, without having to leave anyone behind, even at a time when it is practically hard for UNZA to make a compromise, the VC assured all affected students that have already missed exams that they will be accorded a chance to write deferred exams in December, provided they clear their outstanding balances.
In as much as many people, both affected and unaffected might want to look at this problem as a political issue, a corrupt institution exploiting the vulnerable issue, or a manifestation of the failure of the UNZASU, it is in truth a problem that shall stay with UNZA for the foreseeable future if no one is interested in approaching the matter honestly.
So instead of pointing fingers and using the old language of ‘Viva’ let the general Zambian citizenry watching the mighty UNZA from outside, see that intellectuals are in the forefront in handling pressing issues in a way that is both providentially and intellectually informed as opposed to being emotionally driven.