By Mwiine Lubemba
Finally, Mr Hakainde Hichilema has unveiled his 10 point economic plan. Good God Almighty! Isn’t it confusingly incomplete?
I was disappointed because first I was seriously excited and expecting him to elaborate on his education policies-but Nix.
In fact, apart from President Kaunda’s introduction of specialised Secondary Technical Schools system in 1964, where he picked the best 75 kids at standard six to attend the first Secondary Technical School at Hodgson Technical College later renamed David Kaunda Secondary Technical School, everyone else after him has paid lip-service to the value of scientific education in our industrialisation and technological development process.
Let’s elaborate on Dr Kaunda’s vision, realising Zambia was a landlocked country, faced with escalating oil and natural gas prices at the time while the country had adequate coal reserves, he established the first Coal to Chemicals Industry in Zambia- the Nitrogen Chemicals of Zambia (NCZ), a technologically sophisticated chemicals processing plant those days whose full potential to national industrialisation and development has to date not been fully understood and utilised.
Gasification technology (that’s not working) at NCZ, which uses high temperatures and pressure to break the molecular bonds in coal to produce gases that can be recombined into a variety of fuels and chemicals, has existed for more than a century. Germany gasified coal to fuel its planes during World War II. China has been making fertilizers and a variety of finished chemicals and chemical starting raw materials that we have continued to import from them, through gasification for decades.
Gasification technology reactors, which have been the problem at NCZ, have in recent years been improved upon and are almost flawless. The NCZ today is a typical example of the education nightmare our nation is facing because 43 years after its commissioning, this asset is sitting in a wasted state.
For too many years we’ve identified and tried to address the problem of failing educational standards in Zambia by essentially ignoring it after our leaders have been elected and appointed to their respective cushy ministerial positions which come with meaningless monstrous offices.
And when I say, by ignoring it, I mean, by merely and blindly letting our unelected public servants, to draw up our National Budget merely to fulfil whatever is the UN and World Bank suggested percentages to be spent on education, who after they fulfil these allocations to the sector, they throw the paper to our parliamentarians who also merely vote for the disbursements of the money and afterwards they too finally throw it back at our unelected bureaucrats in the Education Ministries to dispense.
Often this is done by our politicians; hoping the problem will just go away. But those problems persist. To wit, in the past years, the majority of Zambian basic and high school students fall into the category of the economically impoverished.
This, despite the fact that spending per pupil in most Zambian basic and high schools is at all-time high as it has been forced to conformed to UN/World Bank country budgetary expenditure allocations towards education.
I feel there’s a gross disconnect here that no one’s talking about and no one, even in Mr Hichilema’s UPND, really wants to address.
The challenges with Zambia’s basic and high school education came home to me when I watched my own niece struggling in school.
My young sister died and left my niece with her father in Lusaka’s Kanyama compound that has one of the many of the nation’s lowest performing schools.
The usual culprits were to blame; ridiculously large class sizes, and frequent learning disruption by behaviourally challenged students that took away valuable learning time.
The schools, despite having adequate funding, were nonetheless poorly managed and under- resourced.
It got to the point that my two surviving elder sisters and I were desperate to find a better option for my late younger sister’s daughter-my niece.
After several years of struggling against the educational system and a disinterested father in his daughter’s education, we decided to take matters into our own hands.
Fortunately, we had the resources to enrol my niece in one of the many educational enrichment programs, to take time with her to make sure she completed her assignments, to find appropriate private tutors—and ultimately to move her into a better private school in nearby Makeni area.
She’s is now thriving, and performing above her grade level in all her subjects in 4th year pending medical school entry at UNZA.
My niece is a success story, but those left behind in the failing Kanyama Compound and, I’m sure, many other basic and high schools in the country are sadly condemned to an uncertain fate.
So let’s get down to brass tacks. What exactly should we expect out of our educational system? What should we not expect?
That is quite difficult to answer effectively because most government free basic and high schools cannot control the quality of students that attend.
The teachers have to take whoever shows up and deal with it the best they can. So, increasingly, schools have become an extension of the department of social welfare.
Those attending boarding schools and come from impoverished homes have to be fed.
In addition, these schools have to deal with the socio- economic problems that students bring with them-and often teachers find themselves in the position of being behavioural counsellors, mental health professionals, and babysitters.
A smaller and smaller portion of each school day is spent actually focusing on learning.
And what about the quality of education itself: I must admit I’m always mindful of Professor Lameki Goma’s commencement speech at our graduation in 1974 when he philosophised about the “usefulness of useless disciplines,” but notwithstanding, should our schools be primarily focusing on ‘liberal arts’ education, or the hard sciences-almost 43 years after Professor Goma’s speech?
We live in a country in which less than half the engineers and scientists were educated in Zambia, and even fewer of those engineers and scientists who were born in Zambia are products of the present day government basic and high school system. It’s no wonder companies like the RDA have had to utilise foreign trained engineering contractors to carry out most road works like the Mongu- Kalabo bridge.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m aware some modern structural design works of these roads and buildings have been carried out by foreign-trained Zambian engineers and architects. I have also heard companies including the mines are begging the government to expand the visa program and similar measures to permit more foreign trained engineers and scientists to enter the country and stay here. Zambia continues to fall further and further behind other nations in the world in math and the hard sciences.
And the recent surprising “dismissal” or “deliberate” or “oversight”- “non-renewal” of a contract for one of Zambia’s ‘top’ highly trained and experienced production engineer and scientist as Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Higher Education explains the seriousness, if not grave, lack of government policy commitment to addressing the worsening state in our higher scientific education system.
The answer is clear-we need fewer African and hyphenated Zambian studies majors, and more engineering and computer science majors. But our education system is woefully under-prepared to produce students with the requisite math and science skills, the critical thinking skills, to compete in college level engineering and science courses.
Here’s where it gets really bad. The government is paying billions of kwacha on basic and high school fees as well as college and university student education bursaries and in addition its owing billions more in unpaid teachers and lecturer’s pensions for our students coming out of schools and universities only to be found working as baristers at our several shopping malls that are coming up en mass.
Of course, they’ll have a copy of the Daily Nation or Post Newspaper to read during their coffee breaks—at least they can afford those working at coffee shops, fast foods out-lets and as till minders at grocery stores—but compete in the global economy, they cannot. Meanwhile the government has accumulated an unspoken debt educating these young people who’ve barely lived, haven’t started families or even built or bought their first home—but are armed with a degree in “Sontalogy Studies,” or “Zambia Forward Studies.” In addition, the government is also in debt to the tune of several billions of kwacha with nothing to show for it. What is the solution to this pernicious dilemma? Not the knee-jerk response—that throws some money at education to merely fulfil the UN or World Bank requirements. Forget the World Bank and UN recommendations. This is not a problem that can be solved by money alone as these World Bank and UN international civil servants suggest. Throwing money at our current educational system in Zambia will merely add fuel to the flames. What we need is a leaner, meaner, more results-focused educational system.
The government should get out of funding education that is not related to productive vocations. But government is doing itself and its hard working taxpayers a disservice by putting itself and its productive taxpayers in deep debt for an education that will not earn a return on the investment of time or money for both the productive taxpayer and government who’re desperately in need of productive degree holders to increase the overall national productive base.
Secondly, at the elementary and secondary school levels, kids with demonstrated behavioural problems-who are on weed-Chibuku-glue- and steal from other kids, need to be quickly extracted from learning environments where they interrupt and prevent other students from learning. Parents may not like being told that their child is a cancer on the classroom—but that’s what it is.
The responsibility for bringing a student to school who knows how to behave must be squarely placed on the parents not teachers. Doing this is sure to get their attention—and cause them to become more attentive to their child’s emotional health.
Fifty two years after independence, we do not have the luxury of raising another half century generation of failing children. It’s not being ‘nice’ to them to engage in social promotion only to arrive in the 21st century workforce unable to compete for well-paying jobs. We have to prioritise effectively, root out the bad apples, and focus our educational resources on developing critical science and engineering skills that will move our nation forward.
Just a thought,