The Importance of Education Excellence

The news yesterday was that the World Economic Forum had graded the South African education system for science and mathematics at 140 out of 140 countries studied – stone last. I thought that was our territory but for once we rated better than our much larger and wealthier neighbors. In the same week, 4 of the top five Universities in Africa were listed as being in South Africa.

There is no doubt in my mind that of all the social services that a society must provide, education is one of the most important and countries that fail to deliver a good quality of education at every level, are almost bound to fail. Education is also the most important empowerment tool – any country in Africa that fails to educate their girls, condemns them to a life where they are almost everywhere treated as second class citizens.

It is in fact very difficult to overstate the case for education but the issue is mainly about how to pay for it. In Zimbabwe when we in the MDC controlled the Ministry of Finance and the budget, we fixed the basic budget base for education at about 23 per cent of the national budget. Thus is well above what other countries provide for education, but it was and is still totally inadequate. We have 3,5 million young people of school going age and if you divide that number into the national budget you come up with a per capita budget of $20 per month.

Our own track record has not been bad. In the era of the Rhodesian Government education services were largely provided by the Church through mission schools where the great majority of black children were accommodated. This system benefitted from the activities in country of many hundreds of highly trained and motivated foreign missionaries who gave their lives for the provision of education and in the process provided a very high standard of education for many at very low cost per capita.

The price we paid for this was the conversion of many young people to Christianity and these traditions have survived Independence in 1980 and today Zimbabwe has a population that is very largely Christian in one form or another.

However, the men and women who emerged from the bush war in 1980 to take power and assume responsibility for education were not sympathetic to the role of foreign Missionaries or even Christian education and attempts were made to reduce the influence of the Churches on education and the curriculum. However the Christians embedded in the system resisted these changes and the character of education here has largely survived.

The Rhodesian Government on the other hand established a system of education designed to meet the needs of the small white population – in this sector there were no compromises, the State schools were staffed with excellent teachers who were well paid, regarded in society as an elite They in turn built up a small network of exclusive, exceptional schools which gave all white children a world class education. This was extended right through to University when the first Colleges were established after 1950, prior to that they simply went outside the country for University education.

When political pressure built up the Rhodesians extended the system for white students to a separate system for people of mixed race, Asian descent and a black elite. By the early 60’s this system was the same size as the system for white children, the whole network segregated but State schools adhered to universally high standards and many fine professionals worked in the system of “African Education”.

The results of this were that by 1980, when Independence came Zimbabwe had a well educated black elite and in the first Cabinet there were 17 PhD graduates – many from first class Universities like Princeton in the USA. The University of Zimbabwe provided degrees that were fully recognised in the West.

But the new State moved to take over Mission based schools and this coincided with a decline in mission funding and support and many societies handed over their schools and withdrew. Many did not and there are a large number of fine schools still run by Churches in the country. However, even today, these organisations find it difficult to get work permits for foreign teachers for their schools. The reasons for this are that (like their Rhodesian Front predecessors) the Zanu PF are deeply suspicious of anyone who works in the rural areas and is independent of their operations and control.

But with Independence came a desire to extend education to all and the result was a rush to expand the small State system by thousands of new schools. Enrolment expanded exponentially and a crash programme of teacher training poured tens of thousands of new teachers into the system. Funding could not keep up and standards began to slide as experienced and qualified teachers left the service for greener pastures.

The early results of the expanded system were very exciting – literacy rose to over 95 per cent of the population – the highest in Africa. The schools heroically tried to maintain standards and at first they were successful but inadequate funding started to take its toll by 1990. Since then the process has accelerated and today many students emerge from our system neither functionally, literate or numerate.

In Parallel our College and University system was expanded massively and this process continues today – right now we have plans to establish another 4 Universities even though we cannot afford to run what we already have. The result is that standards have declined and the decision last year to award a PhD to the wife of the President after three months of work, marked a new low point in the domestic system of higher and tertiary education. Almost unobserved the international community has established a system of Polytechnics that has seen one in every large town and City. These have fared no better as funding has declined on a per capita basis.

The problem is quite simple really – we have to pay our teachers on the basis that they are an elite and are the principle change agents in our society. I have done a simple calculation of what would be required to do that and I cannot see us doing it for less than $60 a month for every primary school student, $100 a month for ever secondary school student and $200 per month for College and University students. This would mean we would have to spend our entire budget of $4 billion a year on education with nothing left for anything else. Clearly that is not possible – so what is the solution?

Our private school system shows the way in a partial sense – this system comprising perhaps 5 per cent of the schools provides a high standard of education at a cost of between $200 and $500 a month. These schools turn out graduates of an exceptional standard and unfortunately the great majority go on to study outside Zimbabwe where the Universities consistently report that they are the best students and that their fees are critical to the maintenance of a high standard of University education.

In our primary and secondary system the problem remains – inadequate funding and the problem of ensuring that all girls are brought into the system and given a real start in life persists. In my view these problems can only be overcome by handing all schools over to the communities they serve and allowing Parents to support the schools from their own resources. That would mean that about a third of all students and perhaps as many as three quarters of all girls would require a subsidy on top of whatever grants the State could afford. Only the international Community could pick up that task and in terms of the MDG Goals, it is perhaps time that this challenge was met by international organisations on a more systematic and long term basis until our own economy grows to the point where it can fund the system on its own.

Eddie Cross
Harare 4th October 2015