Sifelani Tsiko Agric, Environment & Innovations Editor
Rapid changes and increased complexity of today’s world present new challenges and put new demands on the country’s university education system.
The University of Zimbabwe (UZ) has made sweeping changes to its academic policies and existing degree programmes, bringing anxiety to some and hope to others. In this report, Sifelani Tsiko (ST) speaks to UZ Vice Chancellor Professor Paul Mapfumo (PM) about change management and how the institution is working to avoid confusion, anxiety, resistance, frustration and false starts.
ST: The UZ has introduced new degree programmes in line with Education 5.0 adopted by the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education, Innovation, Science and Technology to teach, research and serve community, innovate and industrialise Zimbabwe. Why has the UZ decided to introduce new degree programmes? In what way is this going to change the university’s outputs and outcomes?
PM: The introduction of new degree programmes of the UZ should be viewed as part of a broader strategic agenda for a radical, but well thought-out, transformation of the institution according to its Strategic Plan (2019-2025). Overall, the university seeks to align its degree programmes with the development aspirations of the Zimbabwean people in the pursuit of their national vision.
Some of the major reasons for the ongoing transformation of the UZ or changing the UZ’s DNA include the critical and urgent need to develop highly skilled and competent specialists and experts with demonstrable capabilities to produce goods and services and effectively offer relevant solutions to the problems facing our people in our nation and the world. Secondly, all university teaching and learning should be anchored on relevant and robust research and innovation programmes that are directly linked to the demands of industry, commerce and society. This alignment is critical for our national industrialisation and modernisation agenda in the country, and for our positioning as a global centre of excellence in Heritage-based Education 5.0. The new degree programmes introduced by the UZ are, therefore, in themselves innovative in driving this approach. Thirdly, the university curricula and programmes were no longer fit-for-purpose. The UZ is unreservedly taking leadership in changing the architecture of higher education in the country in response to the numerous calls by government and our diverse partners and stakeholders for education that leads to development and changes people’s lives through industrialisation and modernisation. Lastly, we want to make a meaningful and sustained contribution to the career development of our young people, and simultaneously open new opportunity horizons for business enterprise development and economic prosperity. The university needed to be both current and futuristic. The same old degree programmes cannot deliver solutions to new national challenges in a globalised world.
ST: The changes have in some cases led to antagonism between the UZ administration and its teaching staff. How are you managing the tension and low morale among your staff?
PM: Change, and in particular a deep and comprehensive transformation, is not easy for some people. This is especially so for those that feel they may be left exposed for their lack of fitness. The UZ administration is not antagonistic to any member of staff, but is aware that some members of staff may be antagonistic to the administration for reasons and purposes best known to them. It is important to also note that loud noise from a few people does not necessarily reflect a sentiment of the majority. I must truly thank the high level of commitment, focus and dedication to this transformation that has come from the majority of our staff, including our partners in industry, commerce, the civic society and the alumni, both local and in the diaspora. They also saw this as a necessity, otherwise we would not have come this far. This big undertaking has been interrupted by a number of other external challenges ranging from economic to the global Covid-19 pandemic. This obviously has impact on the morale of staff, but I must salute both our staff and students — they are a wonderful people.
ST: Some critics charge that the new changes were largely an imposition by Prof Amon Murwira, the Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education, Innovation, Science and Technology Development. Were all concerned parties consulted in the process to change the programmes? What is your comment on allegations that Prof Murwira is largely behind the new changes at UZ?
PM: I advise people to read the University of Zimbabwe Strategic Plan 2019-2025, which was launched by our Chancellor and President of the Republic of Zimbabwe, Cde Emmerson Mnangagwa, on 5 August 2019. The UZ Strategic Plan is anchored on the philosophy of Kuziva neKugona/Ukwazi loKwenelisa and is not a demonstration of any “imposition” by anyone.
The UZ is responding to the call by the President to change our curriculum and have an education that produces goods and services. The UZ undertook a comprehensive consultation process, both internally and externally since October 2018 up to the accreditation of the new programmes by the Zimbabwe Council for Higher Education (ZIMCHE).
That some people are gripped with fear arising from perceived loss of relevance as a result of the transformation can be explained as a natural phenomenon. People need not confuse the determination and tenacity of Prof Amon Murwira in the delivery of his mandate to mean ‘imposition’. He is the responsible minister, the man responsible for the Heritage-based Education 5.0 on behalf of government and responsible for all universities, not just UZ. Let us allow him to do his job and acknowledge that he is good.
ST: Some degree programmes have been stopped altogether and some staff members say they have either been retired or forced to leave the institution. What is your comment to the allegations?
PM: We are only beginning to consolidate our reorganisation of staff after accreditation of the new programmes. We have not asked anyone to retire or leave the institution because of the new programmes. However, we have demanded that people be ready to produce evidence of productivity so that we can neatly account for our presence at the institution. Let us be clear here, UZ education is no longer just about teaching and teaching and teaching or talking and talking and talking. It is now about research, teaching and learning, innovation, community service and industrialisation. This is bound to frighten or intimidate certain people and compel them to make different choices.
Our staff should proudly take ownership of this historic rebirth of the UZ and we invite those academics and professionals from far and wide, who are dedicated to the advancement of higher education, to come and join us.
ST: What mechanism, then, has the UZ put to ensure the staff are not retrenched or demotivated in the implementation of new changes? What is the UZ doing to motivate its staff?
PM: The community of academics is a very dynamic one and mobility of staff is often influenced by many factors and reasons that range from financial to self-satisfaction. The UZ is working towards a model of higher education delivery characterised by unique characteristics that include a research-innovation-industrialisation continuum that generate greater opportunities for staff and student participation (employment and consultancy) and intellectual property generation (business opportunities) that increase revenue streams beyond tuition fees. There is regional and international visibility and mobility of academic and technical staff through research, innovation and innovative teaching/learning models that enhance career advancement and growth of professional networks. We want to foster new and stronger forms of partnerships and collaboration with partners in industry and commerce, including students and alumni, to increase productivity while reducing workloads.
With strong government support, we are also looking at developing teaching and learning infrastructure and improve staff salaries and benefits with the objective to achieve regional parity. Other forms of motivation and incentive that are of a contractual nature are also being developed.
ST: The new programmes are quite many and varied. Does the UZ have adequate and trained manpower to teach the new programmes?
PM: Yes, the new programmes are many and varied to allow wider choices across both disciplinary and temporal scales. Innovative models for delivering teaching and learning, which include modular teaching and online learning will change the academic business landscape. It was critical for us to focus on programming first before moving on to staffing. As we get a good idea of students’ preferred programmes, we are better able to direct our recruitment and staff development efforts. These are ongoing already.
ST: Many fear that the UZ staff is overwhelmed and the widening of new programmes might compromise quality. What is your comment on this?
PM: It is in the context of this new transformation agenda that the university has introduced an executive directorate for quality assurance and professional development. Our programming was not confined to what the current lecturers can do, it is obviously more open and broad-based than that as the new programmes suggest. The university is already operating at just over half of its regular establishment and this presents an opportunity to recruit for new programmes. Of course, finding experts is not always easy, but that’s what university human capital management is all about.
ST: Does the UZ have adequate resources to support some of the new degree programmes which require specialised tutors and equipment? How are you going to addressing the gaps?
PM: The UZ does have the minimum capacity to run new programmes at the least, although there is still a lot that is required to modernise our infrastructure and facilities. If one looks at this in the context of the Education 5.0 model, which brings stronger direct interaction with industry, then more potential can be realised. This is what ZIMCHE was assessing before accreditation, and that is where we are now putting our focus going forward.
ST: In light of the raging Covid-19 pandemic, to what extent will this disease affect the UZ’s operations and rolling out of new programmes? What measures are you placing to address the challenges?
PM: The university has demonstrated capacity to operate within the Covid-19 environment and has also contributed significantly to the national fight against the pandemic. Both students and staff are actively involved, and we have now developed our local guidelines over and above the national Covid-19 guidelines. We have successfully cleared almost all our January-June 2020 classes despite the pandemic and this is a great achievement for Zimbabwe. We will be dealing with the same challenges whether with new or old programmes. We have since changed our academic business in response to the pandemic, for example, the introduction of online and blended learning.
ST: Going forward, what are your hopes for the UZ and how is the country’s oldest and foremost university going to spur the attainment of the country’s 2030 vision, as well as its innovation and technological advancement?
PM: There is and there will be a lot of positive news from the UZ going forward following this successful execution of the first phase of the institution’s transformation. We are now in the implementation phase. I am confident we have now set ourselves on course to pursue our institutional vision: “To be Recognised as Zimbabwe’s Global Centre of Excellence in Research, Innovation and Higher Education Training by 2035.” Through this vision, the UZ sets itself on the path to contribute to the national Vision 2030.