THE Presidential Scholarship Fund programme came to a halt last month as the financial crisis bedevilling the economy continues to haunt the country’s exchequer.
The Fund, a brainchild of President Robert Mugabe, has over the years enrolled thousands of “underprivileged” students at universities in South Africa.
But critics say it has largely benefited children of Zanu PF officials.
Enrolment of new beneficiaries was temporarily shelved last month amid revelations that the government was battling to pay tuition fees to cover those still on the programme.
The Fund’s director Chris Mushowe admitted the programme owed South African universities over $1 million in tuition fees.
“Because of lack of funding, we have stopped taking students until we are done with the current lot because we do not have enough funding for the project,” Mushowe said last month.
“This is largely because since 2010, we did not receive enough funding from Treasury.”
He added that Zimbabwe owed universities south of the Limpopo R11 million which translates to about $1 million, hence the painful decision to shelf further enrolments until the arrears were settled.
More than 4 000 Zimbabwean students are currently studying through the scholarship programme at 15 South African universities.
These include the University of Johannesburg, Wits University, Fort Hare, Monash and the University of KwaZulu Natal.
Each of the institutions of higher learning had an average of 250 students from Zimbabwe.
The students were sent out to pursue studies in fields such as medicine, accounting, mining engineering, actuarial sciences and law.
The programme, however, did not advertise for the scholarships for prospective students for 2012 and 2013 as the financial crisis started biting.
Observers have, for many years, questioned why the millions of dollars poured into the programme, ostensibly to fund students at foreign universities, were not channelled to fledgling local tertiary institutions crying out for massive financial injections.
The Zimbabwe National Students Union (Zinasu) has been arguing since 2009 that it did not make sense that government would send thousands of students to South Africa when they could have studied locally at a fairly cheaper cost.
“The priority is to deal with the University of Zimbabwe (UZ), Midlands State University (MSU), Harare Polytechnic and the National University and Science and Technology (Nust) that are facing problems,” said the then Zinasu legal affairs secretary Courage Ngwarai.
Local tertiary institutions cry out for support
Ralph Machinga, a final year student at UZ, told NewsDay that over the past four years, he has watched the institution, once a source of educational pride in southern Africa, deteriorate at an alarming rate.
Machinga said most students were unhappy with the manner in which the institution has been neglected, leaving it a sorry shadow of its former glowing self.
“It’s a pity that this great institution has been allowed to collapse,” he said.
“Of course, we appreciate that it’s good to send colleagues from underprivileged backgrounds to university, but why send them out of the country if they can study here and the funds from the scholarship be used to develop our own institutions?”
Current national co-ordinator for Zinasu, Samuel Gwenzi also queried the rationale of paying huge amounts of money to foreign institutions when local universities were virtually collapsing under the yoke of under-funding.
“What is the sense of having scholarships for South African universities when we have universities here in Zimbabwe?” Gwenzi told a local daily recently, while welcoming the suspension of the Presidential Scholarship Fund.
“It is far more expensive to support students abroad than here in Zimbabwe.”
He said it was also disturbing that the money used to support the students in South Africa was enough to pay the tuition fees for all the students at local universities.
Gwenzi added that it was important for government to demonstrate confidence in its own universities which he said were steps ahead of those institutions down the Limpopo.
In February this year, the UZ raised tuition fees by 10% in a move described by the Students’ Solidarity Trust (SST) as “unjustified and ill-advised” since most students were already struggling.
Social science students’ fees went up from $450 to $502 per semester. Medical students fees’ were increased by about $90 and they now had to fork out more than $700, excluding food and accommodation expenses.
Underfunding drives students into tight corner
The scholarship fund’s failure to pay tuition and provide welfare allowances to the students has reportedly forced some of them into vices such as prostitution and drug dealing to earn a living.
Over the last few years, the students have been exposed to poverty and other social ills spawned by poverty.
According to reports, some institutions told the students in December last year not to return if their debts were not settled.
However, according to Mushowe, government has since negotiated with the universities to pay the outstanding balances in installments.
He dismissed as malicious allegations that students under the programme were starving and homeless in South Africa.
“I want to challenge any of the said students who are purportedly starving or do not have accommodation to come forward,” he said. “Although there are no luxuries to speak of, no student has gone hungry or has not been able to go back to school. The programme is not collapsing; if we get adequate resources we will recruit next year.”
Last year, former Finance minister Tendai Biti refused to fund the $54 million-per-year scheme, arguing that it was Mugabe’s responsibility as the patron of the fund to mobilise resources to bankroll the scholarship programme.
It is understood that between 2001 and 2007, the scholarship was funded directly from the Office of the President’s budget.
Biti argued that Treasury was too incapacitated to continue bankrolling a scheme that was Mugabe’s personal initiative rather than a government programme.
“The scheme was never a government project. It was a private scheme of the President for his own charity work, and so it defies logic that I should be blamed for not supporting it during my term of office,” he said.
Mushowe told a recent Press conference that Biti refused to fund the programme when no allocation was set aside for the fund in 2010 because Biti “did not believe in the project”.
“In 2010, he allocated $3 million which could not cater for the 15 universities accommodating our children in South Africa. In 2011, he allocated $2 million and in 2012, he allocated $1 million which is far from the budgeted expenditure per annum,” Mushowe said.
In July last year, Mugabe admitted that the scholarship scheme owed several South African universities various amounts of money in unpaid tuition fees and accused the then Government of National Unity (GNU) for failing to throw its weight behind the programme.
He said the programme was facing funding difficulties, but vowed to ensure the outstanding fees were paid.
“We will ensure that we get the money soon and even if we have to borrow the money, we will do it,” he was quoted saying in July last year during a get-together-party of the programme’s beneficiaries.
“I will be the guarantor of it, so we do not wreck our relationship with Fort Hare, our relationship elsewhere with other universities… We know we owe them. We do not deny that. We have erred.”
A helping hand
The Presidential Scholarship Programme was founded in 1995 to give academically-gifted students from poor families a chance to study abroad after deals had been struck with South Africa’s institutions of higher learning. Students were drawn from each of the country’s 10 provinces.
Mugabe, who acquired his Bachelor of Arts degree at Fort Hare University, is the patron of the fund.
In 1995, he started sending a few students to study at Alice Campus, University of Fort in the Eastern Cape Province out of his personal pocket.
But as the number of students benefiting from the programme ballooned, the financial burden for the students was moved to the national fiscus.
Speaking during the send-off of 55 students two years ago, Mushowe said Mugabe was passionate about the programme.
“People might not understand what is happening now, but when our children come back 10 to 15 years later, when our economy has improved, you will see the impact of the programme,” Mushowe said.
“We do not want children who go to South Africa to tarnish the image of the President. We want people who work hard for the betterment of their lives, families, community and the nation at large.”
He added that students who failed a single course or fell pregnant would also be expelled.
Graduates are bonded for three years.
During the beneficiaries’ get-together, Mugabe described the inclusive government as a “three-headed monster” that retarded progress in various areas, among them failing to pay university fees for beneficiaries of the Presidential Scholarship Fund.
Mugabe urged the students to remain calm and assured them that money would be secured to pay their outstanding fees.
He said education was the best empowerment that one could get in life to sustain a decent livelihood and to develop the country, adding that the scheme was initiated for less privileged, but academically gifted students.
He added that the programme was established after a realisation that local universities could not accommodate the high turnout of students from high schools.