Home » Culture » Zimbabwe: Students, Research and the Public Sphere

A colourful, if amateur, website announces the hands behind it as "the Apple" of a new industry. Their claim to fame involves flexible offers for writing dissertations, assignments, reports and anything as cumbersome for university students. The Apple line seems to match up one considers that the start-up is scaling up an underground industry to professional recognition, placing research a customer service desk or Facebook chat away for anyone who has the money but not the time or aptitude to earn a degree.Earning a degree has never been easier, with services of this nature springing up and a number of digital short-cuts instantly available to outsource the sting out of university ghost researchers.

But the cost of such initiatives runs deeper than what the enterprising, young graduates behind them normally charge in mobile money transfers.

"Ecocash-transfer-for-Whatsapp-attachment" dissertations essentially burn the bridge between university education and economic development.

Where research meant rigorous field inquiry and omnivorous engagement with the great outlines of knowledge, but now often means outsourcing the work or making an old dissertation new in less than the time it takes to tabulate match statistics, the costs of sloth are bound to be nationally distributed.

Not only are skills are bound to be thinner, but industries risk stagnating for lack of innovative stimuli from relevant, future-conscious research.

While digital shortcuts to graduation are not generally representative of the state of higher education, there are increasing concerns that books are falling out of favour with students.

Books are at the periphery of the new attention economy even on campus where one would expect them to have a more welcome shelf life.

Presenting a paper titled based on an investigation into students' reading habits at a leading local university during the Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF) Indaba recently, Publishing Studies academic Admire Moyo painted an uninspiring picture.

From a campus population of around 5 000, an overwhelming majority of respondents confessed reading when they absolutely have to.

As students are increasingly drowned in digital clutter, reading is, by and large, only tolerated if there are examinations or assignments to deal with.

At least 91 percent read only to pass examinations, less than five percent buy in a year, less than eight percent read beyond 10 hours per week, library use peaks at 28 percent during examination periods, 32 percent never visit the library and 66 percent do not have a personal collection.

"Most of these students read only to pass examinations and not to equip themselves with the relevant knowledge which will help sharpen their thinking and widen awareness in social, economic, political and environmental issues," Moyo lamented.

Zimbabwean universities have contributed a fair share to the alphabet soup of politics and civic activism.

However, research more than polarised activism, must be universities' claim to fame and staying power in the public square.

Research, socially optimal and alert to economic challenges, could be the country's biggest return on higher education.

There must be a more visible correspondence between nationally relevant research from universities and policy evaluation, innovation and economic growth. With national debates currently bordering on the populist, enterprising research will add rigour to the public sphere.

Universities are mainly regarded as upwardly mobile facilities, priming students for various professional capacities, but there is more they can offer. The Centre for World University Rankings' indicators include the number of research papers appearing in influential journals, highly-cited research papers, broad impact and international patent filings.

Unfortunately, Zimbabwean universities seem to have left the public out of their calculations altogether and this reflects in their mediocre ranking on continental lists.

Local universities have been consistently missing from rankings for the best African universities because they are badly invested when it comes to research and publishing, with the University of Zimbabwe barely making an exception.

The most influential non-fiction publishers worldwide are university-run, aggregating the latest thinking from their campuses and other institutions.

It is tempting to forestall comparison in light of the different economic settings in which the universities operate. However, a problem still registers when one considers that none of the influential publishers in Zimbabwe are university-owned.

Worse still, some, if not most, universities do not circulate journals or any kind of publication except interdepartmental circulars.

In more progressive African universities, departments run sustained journals and publish books with a view of spreading knowledge to the widest audience possible.

Most of the research, which is mandatory for graduation, simply gathers dust in obscure university collections or is simply stacked online without any kind of promotion.

This defeats the purpose of research which must ideally bring to socially relevant ideas and present them to those who can do something about them.

Graduation ceremonies must dispatch not just entry-level job-seekers but ideas of national significance and tools of disruptive proportions.

Universities must scale up research from a peripheral function to a public game-changer; it must correspond to the needs of the day and be accessible to people and institutions who can act on the findings.

Former Oxford University chancellor Chris Patten says universities must promote the clash of ideas, test the results of research with other scholars, and to impart new knowledge.

While there are is healthy dissent among public intellectuals and student voices, it mainly obtains within political camps.

Last year, Higher Education, Science and Technology Development Minister Professor Jonathan Moyo challenged Zimbabwean universities to prioritise research, which he said will help them gain eminence on the list of top universities in Africa and the entire world.

"We will soon be carrying out assessments on our universities so that we grade them according to the number of their copyrights, industrial designs and patents that would be commercially exploited," he said.

The minister said the rankings of local universities would be determined by the number of commercially exploited patents, copyrights and industrial designs to their credit.

Some of the world's most influential economics, popular science and creative writing texts, for example, are the products of research or projects done at and published by universities.

As a fair first step, universities must publish their best research and widely circulate it. Incubation centres for innovation must produce observable products whose impact should be nationally felt.

Aside being the springboard for public intellectuals, universities have historically the platform of progressive youth movements in touch with the broader realities and the needs of their time.

Influential African thought leaders such as Steve Biko were student activists who altered history unforgettably from the campus. Unfortunately, an upsurge of exam-oriented methods is facilitating detachment of youths from the world outside the campus, not to speak of the public sphere.

Students look to the mythic feats of the previous generations of thought-leaders in distant awe yet these were mostly achieved by people who were their age at the time. Student politics, which has featured in history textbooks as a platform for great ideas, has downgraded into a negligible subset of mainstream politics.

Where Frantz Fanon urged each generation to spring out of relative obscurity and pursue its special mandate, the current one still hangs on the partisan coattails of previous generations.

Contemporary students seldom speak of their own accord although they are the one demographic which can be trusted to be primarily interested in the future.

As previously noted in these columns, party politics was a dot within the circle of the youth movement in the yesteryear but the youth movement is now the dot in the bigger circle of party politics.

Universities must contribute to the fight against unemployment by re-routing from mills of qualifications to get jobs to centres for capacitation to grow jobs. Route orientation means students' primary instinct upon graduation will be seeking instead of creating jobs, making higher education work in regress.

We have received a good deal of flak for tasking universities with economic performance from readers who felt that we were deferring a government role to academic institutions.

However, trends in emerging economies show that universities are at the centre of some innovations driving the countries. Zimbabwean universities are dormant new economies with the potential of sparking off innovations and creating new jobs.

The 10 000 students graduating from Zimbabwe's 13 universities every year may not be absorbed by the already haemorrhaging job market but can be equipped to implement novel ideas which will inject a fresh impetus into the economy.

Government and the private sector must partner with universities to fund the best ideas to get the youths up and hustling in the interest of their development and the growth of the economy. In 2013, Government introduced the Graduate Entrepreneurial and Employment Promotion Programme (GEEPP) to promote entrepreneurship among university graduates.

The Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, Postal, Telecommunications and Courier Services recently introduced an innovators' fund to finance novel ideas in the field of ICTs.

Funding and training arrangements for other sectors by various ministries and corporate will create enabling conditions for the young and energetic to fill the gaps in the formal sector. As veteran writer Ngugi WaThiongo says, the centre must be moved and space created for a hundred flowers to bloom. South Korea, Japan and U.S have grown immensely by maintaining an enabling setting for start-ups, something long overdue in Zimbabwe.

The future of Zimbabwe is youth-based hence the need for more visible and effective correspondence between universities and national needs.

Source: The Herald.