The Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (Stem) initiative is, to a great extent, a work of novelty; it is something refreshingly unique given the state of the economy.
Nonetheless, the initiative has not come without some prickly questions being raised about it. It is understood that a cool amount of $4 million has been set aside for the initiative, with the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology overseeing the programme. There have been questions raised by some sections of society with regards to the programme, chief among them has been the question of whether Stem can last the distance given that its sponsor, the Zimbabwe Manpower Development Fund (Zimdef), is an institution of the financially-hamstrung government.
Others have also asked whether the management of the programme shouldn’t be under the ambit of the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education as opposed to the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology. Yet still, others have asked whether or not Stem covers both private and public schools.
However, it would appear these questions have since been put to rest. It has been made abundantly clear that the programme covers only tuition and boarding fees and in public schools exclusive of such things as science laboratory kits and uniforms. It has also been put in place that there is harmony between the two ministries insofar as the modalities of the project are concerned. It would also be too early, in my view, for anyone to try and dismiss Zimdef’s capacity since the funding of development programmes is its central function and we are told the amount has readily started its work.
The talking point, however, from a legal standpoint, has been the issue of examining the Stem initiative under the compound microscope of the law and the Constitution in particular. Why prioritise the funding of science subjects ahead of humanities and commercials? Is this discrimination justifiable in a democratic society based on equality of all people? Does this imply the government places less weight on the other disciplines?
These questions have been topical in the past few weeks, particularly among students themselves. Is the whole idea of Stem in conflict with the Constitution seeing as it is that Section 56 on Equality and non-discrimination categorically states that: “All persons are equal before the law and have the right to equal… benefit before the law.” Section 56(3) is more elaborate demarcating that, “Every person has the right not to be treated in an unfairly discriminatory manner on such grounds as their nationality, race, colour, tribe, place of birth, ethnic or social origin, language, class, religious belief, political affiliation, opinion, custom, culture, sex, gender, marital status, age, pregnancy, disability or economic or social status, or whether they were born in or out of wedlock.”
It becomes imperative to dissect Stem’s grounds of discrimination to see whether they are in conformance with Constitutional provisions. Section 56 of the Constitution can be considered the litmus test for the Stem initiative. Any person would have been discriminated unfairly if one of the mentioned creeds such as religion or disability is involved. For instance, it would be a direct violation of the Constitution for the Stem initiative to exclude male students. However, it must be clearly understood that Stem extends to every student in the country regardless of geography who wants to pursue science subjects. It does not segregate on any grounds relating to section 56. Of critical importance is that the law approves grounds for discrimination which are deemed fair, reasonable and justifiable.
In this regard, Stem, as an initiative, is aimed towards addressing a national skills imbalance; it is not a pointless promotion of science subjects, but is premised on a genuine need, that of covering an evident skills gap. It is undeniable that there is a critical skills gap in the fields of medicine, actuarial science, engineering and veterinary.
Over the years, it has always been a statistical chorus that, at Advanced Level there would always be fewer science subjects students as compared to the other two disciplines popular with students. This trend carries on into university where it is apparent that science disciplines always have less numbers. This state of affairs further spills into a national crisis where the gap in the science disciplines remains yawning.
It is, therefore, understandable why Stem would be introduced and why, in my opinion, it is a fair, reasonable and justifiable in a democratic society. Just like in a job interview; there has to be some objective justifiable way of discriminating against the candidates. That discrimination should be based on some fair, reasonable and justifiable criteria like aptitude, ability, knowledge or experience. In other terms, it is absolutely legal to employ fair discrimination in a democratic society based which views all people as equal.
Stem, therefore, represents fair discrimination in an open society based on principles of justice and quite noble indeed as it stretches towards addressing a decades-old skills disparity.
lLearnmore Zuze is a legal researcher, author and media analyst. He writes here in his own capacity. E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org