‘We’re focused on human capital development’
Zimbabweans require critical skills and experience gained abroad through State-assisted programmes, and the new dispeansation has aggregated scholarships under the Minister of State for Government Scholarships in the President’s Office, Christopher Mushohwe (CM). He discusses the work before him with The Herald’s Political Editor Tichaona Zindoga (TZ), assuring the nation that his ministry is determined to overcome challenges that have previously affected the administration of scholarships.
TZ: Cde Minister, this is a new ministry that was created under the administration of President Mnangagwa. Can you explain to us what the mandate of this ministry is?
CM: As you have rightly said that this a new ministry that was created, and you are aware that we used to have a department within the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development which was responsible for bilateral scholarships. But there was also a department within the President’s Office which was responsible for what was then regarded as Presidential Scholarship. So the two have been merged including all other Government scholarships whether there were scholarships which were coming through agriculture, public service, mining or any other. All those Government scholarships have now been aggregated under this new ministry, which is resident in the Office of the President and Cabinet in which I was appointed as the Minister responsible for these scholarships.
The mandate is to do with human capital development in this country. As you know Zimbabwe is renowned for its appetite for education and that’s why it has been decided by the Zimbabwean Government that we must have a dedicated ministry with a Minister. As you know l used to run other ministries but at the same time running as the executive director of the then Presidential Scholarship, but this time the Government decided that there has to be a full minister to administer the consolidated scholarship programme. The mandate is very simple as l have indicated that Zimbabwe is poised for industrialisation, Zimbabwe is working hard to turn around its fortunes. But for any country to turn around its fortunes or develop economically and even industrialise, you need first and foremost human capital; a requisite human capital with skills that must help to resuscitate, redevelop and indeed make sure that the economy of the country is revamped. We desperately need our people who have got the skills to help us forge ahead and realise the dream. As you have seen, the President Mnangagwa is talking about nothing else other than hardwork, hardwork and hardwork and ensure that there is throughput of results which point to reconstruction of our country and promoting progress. So that is the major mandate. Of course it is a mandate that is aimed at ensuring that even those who are in the diaspora who have gone through the programmes are expected to come back home to help rebuild Zimbabwe. Of course make sure that those who are already in Zimbabwe are given opportunity to acquire new technologies through provision of scholarships so that they go out and perfect and sharpen their skills and knowledge.
TZ: A common criticism is why do you have to send learners abroad and not capacitate local universities, the money that you probably spend outside could go a long way in improving the standards of local institutions. How would you respond to that kind of criticism?
CM: That sounds a reasonable question. But l think the question that should be put across is that inasmuch as that should be the case, how many ‘A’ level graduates go through high schools every year and how many of those are absorbed every year by the local universities? You will see that just a quarter of those who go through ‘A’ level every year are absorbed by local universities. What happens to the rest? And even if there was an opportunity for that, it is not every child who is able to pay fees. Some children have lost parents or a parent who was the bread winner, and some are children of people who are disabled who were involved in the liberation struggle and some are children who are being looked after by their grandparents. Because of the AIDS pandemic we have lost many people. Some are children from very remote parts of this country, there are children who are intellectually gifted who you will find in places like Mahenye, Mwenezi, Dotito, Binga and so on. The idea of what was called Presidential Scholarship was to try and mop up those intellectually gifted children whose circumstances would not allow them to go to universities so that we can breach the gap between the very poor and those who are able to send their children to school.
TZ: You partly answered as to who qualifies for these various scholarships but there have been accusations of corruption whereby, for example, some individuals from privileged backgrounds got Presidential Scholarships meant for the poor. How are you going to tackle corruption in the administration of these scholarships?
CM: I do not think there has been any corruption. People talk from a position of ignorance. I want to see someone who comes here and say, ‘Here is a child of someone who was able to pay for his or her child’ and not just gossiping. Most of the children that we got were from the rural areas. The process was that we would advertise and prospective students would apply and there would be vigorous vetting to make sure the information is true because people can lie. So l would want to see evidence of those, whoever was claiming that they were sent when their parents were able to pay. The selection starts from provinces and cascades to districts depending on the numbers of those who would have applied. Every district in this country must be represented. There is no way that one person can have relatives from all the districts of this country.
TZ: Let us talk about the numbers. How many students are there in various scholarship programmes and this year, 2018, how many are set to benefit?
CM: This year we have not yet started advertising; we are still consulting. The issue of scholarships depends on the budget and the budget was announced and it has not been operationalised. So once we are certain that there is a given amount that is dedicated to the scholarships then we say how many students can be covered with that kind of money, so that we do not just take students when there is no money because the budget that is there has lots of competing needs. But l would want to say that I can give you the statistics of the students that are already there at the moment. Algeria for example has 395 students, Russia has got 133, India 31, China 109, Czech Republic two, Iran four, Cuba nine students who are still there because most of them graduated and came back last year. In Romania we have five, Egypt we have seven, in Tunisia we still have 11 and in South African universities, we have reduced the intake from the 15 universities that we used to send students to, to only five universities now because of budgetary constraints and those five universities we have got 382 students. We have three students in Cyprus who are doing high tech engineering and we are very happy. The total number of students that we have currently before the intake of this year is 1 091 who are scattered all over but soon we are going to start negotiations with bilateral countries through their embassies on the numbers that we might get from these countries I have indicated.
TZ: A common concern about beneficiaries abroad is how they have not been given stipends and in countries such as Algeria they have reportedly gone for maybe three years without their pay-outs from Government. What is the situation like now and how do you intend to address concerns like these going forward?
CM: It is true that when I was appointed minister responsible for this ministry and having inherited students who were originally housed under Higher and Tertiary Education we realised that some students other than students in South African universities had not been paid stipend; some for two years or so. When they got to know that there was a new ministry, and there was a new dispensation, then naturally as students they thought in their youthfulness if they made some noise the new administration would understand their plight and staged demonstrations. What then we did as a new ministry is to quickly find out what grievances they had and what the situation was and we liaised with the Minister of Higher Tertiary Education to authenticate their claims. It is correct that some of them have not been paid. So, we have to date paid Russia. All students in Russia who are 133 have been paid their stipends for the year 2017 and 2018 and we are busy trying to organise that this week. I will send officials to Cuba and Iran with money for students there.
In Iran there are only four and in Cuba they are nine. So by the end of next week they would have received their money. For students in other universities in Algeria, Tunisia, Czech Republic, Romania, India and Cyprus, we have deposited all the money that is supposed to go there through the embassies’ foreign affairs ministries.
I am very grateful to the Ministry of Finance and the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe because they are doing anything to make sure that these efforts really go through. So we hope that this is an issue that will be resolved very soon. I want accountability that every student must personally sign for his or her stipend and then get a return of the signed schedule and that will indicate that the student has personally received the money so that we can get acquittals, transparency and accountability. So those are the efforts we are making and continue to do in the future if funds are available. If funds are not available, students must understand why they are not being paid. If they are told of the situation on time I am sure students will be reasonable and not resort to demonstrations.
TZ: As a summation, how much have you paid so far in terms of clearance of debts?
CM: The disbursement that I have made is about $1 350 335, that’s the amount that we have disbursed so far.
TZ: So, based on these figures and with these various programmes that are under your ministry, how much would you require as a ministry for this year?
CM: I think we require anything not less than $10 million if we were to send students to these different universities.
TZ: Government is obviously paying through the nose to ensure that learners go abroad. How do you as Government derive value from students that you send abroad?
CM: All the students who are sent abroad, those who were originally under Higher Education and the Presidential Scholarship signed bonding agreements. They signed bonding agreements that were also countersigned by their guardians which stipulates for the Presidential Scholarship that after three or four years, depending on the period of their study, they must come back to Zimbabwe and work here for a period of two to three years either in Government or in private sector. Those who were on Higher Education — because they were on bilateral agreements with the host governments — had a slightly different approach requiring them to pay back the aggregated stipend. But I asked how much had been paid back, and it looks like very little has been paid. When you tell them to pay back they may tell you that they are not employed yet…things like that. But for me what is critical is that what we are doing is to create a human capital for this country.
TZ: Thank you minister. We wish you the best in your efforts to equip young Zimbabweans with critical skills to develop their country.
CM: You are most welcome.