During my days at university, a state university for that matter, I often heard a common line used by students to complain about fees increases.
“My parents are civil servants, how does the university expect me to afford to pay my fees?”
This was meant to be a powerful counter argument to the Registrar’s demand for full payment of fees before registration. Students hoped that by reminding the Registrar that their parents worked for the government, the Registrar would realise that the fees his office was asking for were more than what most government workers are paid. Since the Registrar was employed by the government, he was meant to find it absurd to expect his fellow civil servants to pay more than what they earned. Alas, that argument would only be ideal in a perfect world. Unfortunately for my fellow classmates that argument held, and still holds, no water.
Most university students who could not afford to pay the required fees to join the cadetship scheme which replaced the university students’ pay-out system. The only difference was that the cadetship scheme only paid slightly more than half of fees, with the student expected to pay the remainder. However, the cadetship scheme provided by government has also been struggling to meet the demands by government institutions.
Zimbabwe a country of resourceful or timid people?
Still with all this overwhelming evidence of financial exclusion in the local educational system, the past weeks most of us watched the #FeesMustFall protests in South Africa with mixed feelings. It did not take South African students a week to react to a fees increase proposal. It was not the actual increase but a proposal. In Zimbabwe, however, once there is an increase, parents and guardians negotiate for a flexible payment plan. Recently my brother’s school had to ask parents and guardians to stop paying fees in grain, having resorted to this form of payment in 2008 when the country had serious cash shortages. Schools were also willing to accept that option because it was also difficult for them to access the food needed by the students so the arrangement was a win win situation.
This just shows the extent to which Zimbabweans are willing to go just to fulfil fees payments even if it is a ridiculous amount.
The Zimbabwean economy has been on the decline for years now; more and more people have been pushed out of formal employment as a result of either retrenchment or unforeseen company closures. The famous July 17 Supreme Court ruling this year resulted in more than 20 00 people losing their jobs. Even if these may not be the only reasons why parents and guardians are failing to pay fees, surely they are good enough to justify a demand for fees reduction. So why are Zimbabweans willing to go out of their way to fulfil payments that are evidently beyond their reach?
Is it that there are so many opportunities in Zimbabwe such that we always find ways to pay our bills? Or we are just a timid and ‘peace-loving’ people?
Will fees ever fall?
Asking for fees to fall does not need to involve violence, and we do not necessarily have to emulate the students who took part in the #FeesMustFall protests but we surely have similar grievances.
An article published in the Chronicle of Tuesday the 27th of October 2015 indicated that financial exclusion is not only happening at tertiary level but it is also happening at secondary and even primary education level. A total of 47 000 O’ and A’ Level pupils did not sit for their 2015 examinations, either because they dropped out of school or they could not afford the examination fees. This comes after the government increased O-level examination fees from US$13 to US$15 earlier this year. Examination fees for Grade 7 examinations were also introduced.
Even before my days at university, the student movement organised protests against fees hikes and they demanded improved student welfare. This happened during my days too and the best result that we got was getting permission to draft a payment plan on which you were expected to state the amount of money you would pay in installments. You would sign on to the plan even if you had no idea where, how and when you were going to get that money. These unsuccessful protests are a sign that we perhaps are not as peaceful as we think we are, even though such protests were always somehow tamed by the authorities; before we knew it, we would all have assembled to listen to the Deputy Registrar remind us that the university was not for the poor. He said it several times without remorse.
Similarly the #FeesMustFall protests seem to have met the same fate of limited success. The students did not get the free education they wanted. President Jacob Zuma only assured them there will be no fees increase in 2016; he said nothing about free education. This means that the same level of exclusion of poor families continues, because there are many South African families who cannot afford the current fees. This is the reason why this week, the students of the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg continued with the protests demanding free education for all.
Avoiding an increase is a success on its own but that did not end the exclusion. In both the Zimbabwean and South African situations, the government is not so willing to offer free education. Education remains a privilege of the few who can afford. What South African students only managed to do was to stop an increase in the number of people who are excluded in the education system. Those who were facing the risk of being pushed out fought to maintain their status, but they betrayed those who also want a chance to penetrate the education system. That’s the trouble with student protests; it seems the government is always the better negotiator.
Despite the fact that South African students did not exactly get what they wanted, we cannot deny them the credit that they deserve. They took their stand and stopped the further marginalisation of poor South Africans from the education system. As Zimbabweans, we have not gone that far and we need to learn from our neighbours. Whether we choose to do it the South African way or we resort to other means it is an undeniable fact that fees in Zimbabwe must indeed fall, to allow children of the ordinary person to have access to good education at all levels.
Main image taken from www.bulawayo24.com