Mugabe’s $1 billion university – plan too late to salvage battered legacy

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe delivers a speech during celebrations marking his birthday in Masvingo on February 27, 2016. / AFP / JEKESAI NJIKIZANA

HARARE,– There is a rush by President Robert Mugabe’s lieutenants to salvage his legacy, and the latest ploy in that race – a university named after him – may cost the taxpayer at least $1 billion.

Higher and Tertiary Education Minister Jonathan Moyo announced on Wednesday that the Robert Gabriel Mugabe University is to be built in Mazowe, where Mugabe and his wife, Grace, already run an exclusive private school, an orphanage, a large estate and a dairy.

Education has always been seen as one of the early successes of the Mugabe administration. However, over the last 20 years, he has rolled back what success he had achieved in education, as school dropout numbers soared and the quality of education collapsed.

Now, amid a scramble by his officials for a place at Mugabe’s feet, Government has promised $1 billion in taxpayer funds to please Mugabe and cheer the First Lady in her dream to build an empire in the Mazowe valley.

While few will argue against a new university, it is the cost of the proposed university, and how it will be funded, that is raising controversy.

“Cabinet has approved a grant of $800m towards the construction of the Robert Gabriel Mugabe University, and a grant of $200m towards the establishment of the University’s Endowment Fund for Research and Innovation,” Moyo announced in a statement.

There is no detail as to how this money will be raised. To put the size of the grant in context; at $1 billion, the grant would take up a quarter of the nation’s entire annual budget. The Government would be spending more on a single university than the $800 million that it allocated for primary and secondary education this year.

The $1billion grant would leave the heads of other state universities scratching their heads. The figure is about a thousand times more than what Lupane University gets in fees.

“My enrolment is only 2 500 students and with payments of $500 per student per semester, it is almost impossible to operate a university with a gross figure of

$1,2 million that we get per year,” Lupane University chancellor Pardon Kuipa told MPs earlier this year.

Government is already struggling to fund construction of planned new universities. This year, Treasury disbursed $45 000 for Gwanda State University, $45 000 for Manicaland State University of Applied Sciences, and just $25 000 for Marondera University of Agricultural Science and Technology.

These are funds enough to build a basic rural classroom block, but nowhere enough for a modern university.

The $200m grant pledged towards the Robert Gabriel Mugabe University’s “Endowment Fund for Research and Innovation” matches the entire $200m budget allocation for the Ministry of Higher Education. There is not much research the Ministry will support with that allocation, as $172.5 million of it will go to salaries.

What makes the grant even more surprising is that Government has been sweeping corners and lifting sofa cushions searching for coins to refurbish decaying colleges. The Government has leaned on banks such as CBZ and IDBZ to float bonds and help source cash to build student hostels and other infrastructure.

An 18-page, 3000-word “incubation plan” for the new university lays out grand plans but provides no concrete strategies on funding, beyond the grant. What it does, however, is reveal how Government is prepared to spend a billion of tax dollars to fund what is really a private university.

“In order to ensure that President R.G. Mugabe’s legacy is preserved and passed on to future generations, the international R.G. Mugabe University will have a Responsible Authority under the auspices of the Robert Mugabe Foundation whose Founding Trustees are His Excellency President Robert Gabriel Mugabe and the First Lady, Amai Dr Grace Mugabe,” the document says.

In real terms, the President is paying himself a billion from state coffers to run a private university.

The college will lead in the “industrialisation and modernisation of the country”, the document says. “RGMU” will have a capacity of at least 15 000 students.

A Finance and Revenue Working Group will be set up to “explore potential for the state to provide funding for construction costs”. The group will also “determine financial resources that might be sourced from potential friends of the R.G. Mugabe University”.

The working group has until the end of the year to come up with “fundraising strategies required for start-up and (the) first 10 years of operation of the new University”.

The college will “create comfortable, attractive, and stimulating environments that support collaboration and diverse learning styles and opportunities”.

According to Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa in this budget, poor funding of the education operations and capital budgets, “meant that challenges remain outstanding with regards to improving access and quality of education on account of inadequate infrastructure, shortage of teaching and learning materials”.

Government cannot pay salaries, is begging for an arrears clearance plan on the $1.4 billion it owes to the World Bank and AfDB, has a $1.4 billion deficit, can’t support the 24 000 graduates that leave college each year, and cannot provide basic healthcare.

Yet, somehow, it has found a spare billion dollars to try salvage Mugabe’s legacy, and to bring the First Lady’s grand schemes in Mazowe to life. This is the sort of economic management that they don’t teach at conventional universities.