IS the Presidential Scholarship still relevant?
By Phyllis Mbanje
That is the million dollar question as the Zimbabwe government fails to pay fees at South African universities on time, resulting in some beneficiaries turning into destitutes.
The scheme, whose patron is President Robert Mugabe, has had its fair share of public disdain as government has not been able to justify the millions of dollars being poured into the programme annually.
Critics have questioned the rationale behind spending millions of dollars on students who have gone to various universities in South Africa under the scheme, at the expense of heavily under-funded local colleges and universities.
A student studying at any South African university pays a minimum of R30 000, (close to US$4 000) a year without accommodation. At most Zimbabwe universities, students pay less than $1 000 for two semesters, which is less than a third of what is required across the border.
The scholarship programme was introduced by Mugabe in 1995 primarily to assist talented children from underprivileged families acquire university education.
Initially all the students were sent to the University of Fort Hare in South Africa, where Mugabe himself studied for a BA degree. Now students can go to 15 other receiving universities in South Africa, among them Johannesburg, Monash, Cape Town, Venda and Rhodes Universities.
But the scheme has come under heavy criticism from mostly MDC-T legislators who argue that it benefits students from rich families and those related to Zanu PF bigwigs.
“The Presidential scholarship scheme has always been controversial because it is so opaque. There needs to be a more transparent process in which scholarships are given purely on the grounds of academic talent and poverty,” said former education minister David Coltart.
Last year in March enrolment was temporarily halted after funds dried up as the government owed South African universities over US$1 million in tuition fees.
The director of the fund, Christopher Mushowe said the government had no funds and had decided not to enroll anymore students. However, a few months down the line it was announced that the enrolment would take place.
Recently another advert was flighted calling for applications for the 2016 academic year.
“The Presidential Scholarship targets able but disadvantaged students mainly from the rural schools, intent on pursuing undergraduate studies at universities in South Africa,” reads the advert.
Courses on offer included engineering, health sciences, agriculture and humanities.
“This is madness. It does not make sense that it is called the presidential scholarship and yet the state is paying for it using public funds,” said former finance minister Tendai Biti.
During his tenure as the finance minister, Biti was blamed by Mushowe for the demise of the fund.
In 2010 Mushowe told journalists that Biti allocated US$3 million for students at 15 universities and that was not enough.
“We carried over the balance to 2011 but again we got US$2 million and it got worse in 2012 when he gave us a paltry US$1 million,” he said.
The former Finance minister refused to fund the $54 million-per-year scheme in 2013, arguing that it was Mugabe’s responsibility as the patron of the fund to mobilise resources to bankroll the scholarship programme.
Biti has consistently defended his actions saying the scheme was erroneously drawing from the fiscus when it was a private foundation.
“It is known traditionally that retired or serving statesmen create foundations to deal with some philanthropic cause, but they do not abuse public funds,” Biti said.
Adamant and bent on proving that the President cannot be patron to an unsuccessful project, officials at the helm of the scheme and bootlickers have frothed at the mouth defending its existence.
This is despite reports that some students under the programme were at one point starving while some did not have accommodation.
Last year Mushowe had to travel to South Africa to negotiate with students’ landlords and sign commitment documents so that their accommodation would be guaranteed.
The presidential scholarship programme was founded in 1995 to give academically gifted students from poor families a chance to study at South African universities. It drew students from each of the country’s 10 provinces and initially only 15 students were approved but now the enrolment has grown significantly.
“This was supposed to be for a few select beneficiaries but now it is a mass project; surely it defies logic when back home universities are in a shameful condition,” said Biti.
Most universities are a sorry sight and students are struggling to attend lectures in the absence of grants which were withdrawn years ago.
“That money should be used as grants which are critically needed to ease the burden of local students,” said the spokesperson of the Zimbabwe National Students Union (Zinasu), Avoid Masiraha.
Coltart said ideally, a neutral body of educationalists that are empowered to grant bursaries to the best candidates who meet the minimum requirements should be tasked to oversee the fund.
“The fund is obviously poorly administered and is used for political advantage rather than for the benefit of students,” said the former education minister.
“This fund is irrelevant when we have students right here who cannot pay for their education locally,” said Masiraha.