I’M IMPRESSED by Fred M’membe’s recent estimate of the many challenges that continue to dog the operations of the University of Zambia (UNZA). But I’ve a problem with the Socialist Party leader when he intimates that removing the current UNZA management led by Prof Luke Mumba would probably improve the university’s fortunes. With his well-known journalistic nerve and verve, Dr M’membe made his remarks in a popular Meta (Facebook) post that attracted mixed reactions, including a surprise response from Prof Mumba – since Dr M’membe appeared to clearly take issue with him. While Dr M’membe made valid points in his write-up, which I shall briefly describe here, he tends to speak in concert with a disgruntled segment of staff at UNZA who not only overlook the real challenge of the university, but who have long been unwilling to work with Prof Mumba because of what I might refer to as “sour grapes”. I say sour grapes because some individuals continue to secretly lobby for the vice-chancellor’s job, especially now that there is a new government in place, and there are those who generally don’t like Prof Mumba for the discipline that he instils in the management and operations of UNZA. This scenario isn’t strange for a public institution like this one, but the rate at which it’s developing is of great concern because it might lead to arbitrary decisions from Government, instigate an appointment circus and further delay the need for fundamental reform at the university. To begin with, let me state that while I agree that UNZA is a beleaguered university, the multiplicity of its problems cannot be the blame of management: the institution rather has a basic financial problem which almost always unfairly ends up as the indictment of all successive administrative teams. I draw my authority on this subject not only as a graduate of UNZA but also as a journalist who for years has consistently written about this university and held intimate conversations about its challenges with former vice-chancellors. From his experience managing UNZA as far back as 2003, former vice-chancellor Robert Serpell admits himself that “a lot of my time in that office was crisis management. There was chaos at the university”. Because of bankruptcy at UNZA, Serpell almost drunk contaminated water in solidarity with protesting students and on one occasion was almost manhandled by retirees when he tried to address their grievances in a lecture theatre. So since past administrators have found themselves in similar crises, it’s unreasonable to call for the dismissal of individual leaders and their teams. Apparently prompted by the recent staff go-slow and student demonstration at UNZA, Dr M’membe brought out the following two main points in his Meta post: UNZA is inadequately funded, and it needs government support to dismantle a huge debt of about K3 billion owed to Zambia Revenue Authority (ZRA), National Pension Scheme Authority (NAPSA), Workers Compensation and others; UNZA has poor and arrogant leadership led by Prof Mumba, which should be dismissed. He discussed these matters at length, but my job here is to demonstrate that these concerns diverge in a single strand, which is UNZA’s basic financial problem, which should first be dealt with before any analyst can call for the dismissal of staff. As opposed to arbitrary dismissals, I am proposing two solutions for UNZA’s problems, which have long been ignored as the real issues behind all the unrest and tension. UNZA’s problems began in the 1970s during the nationalisation of the copper mining industry, when copper production levels went into sharp decline, putting an end to Zambia’s so-called fat 10 years after independence in 1964. Before economic struggle in a global order led by the United States and Britain, UNZA was ever buoyant and Government treated the university like a hotel, with plenty of food and money, with excess allegedly going to waste in bins and student escapades around Lusaka. But severe underfunding has since then continued, leading to a notorious staff exodus in the 1990s, which saw UNZA professors leaving the country to teach in universities in neighbouring countries and outside Africa. Staying afloat solely because it’s a government university that would have otherwise been shut down by now, the university owes its retirees and current employees a total amount of K700 million.
This debt alone can be traced to as far back as 2011 and thus continues to be a legacy issue under the current administration. The university has an expenditure of about K1.1 billion every year against a revenue of K800 million, which includes the K200 million government grant that has since been increased to a relatively meagre K230 million in the 2022 national budget. As a public service institution belonging to the social sector, UNZA is arguably the only public university in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) that raises more than 70 percent of its operational costs, while expected to be the major producer of human resource for the country. With a deficit budget, UNZA has ended up with parallel payrolls for its current and retired employees.
Besides millions of Kwacha owed to multiple service providers, UNZA is yet to pay K3.2 billion to NAPSA and K2.2 billion to ZRA in income tax, to mention but a few. So when the university recently got a loan of K200 million, with a priority list from Government to pay off retirees so that the university remains with a single payroll, the unions protested the decision and instead sought a share from the limited resources to pay gratuities to some of their employees under their preferred First-In, First-Out (FIFO) method. But the unions have been reluctant in the process to accept any mild adjustments in working conditions that would favour both Government and the university so that the payment of benefits becomes more sustainable and less exacting going forward. Without regard for tight fiscal space and policies that would squash the financial burden of the university, staff at UNZA go on strike, like they recently did, and as usual demanded for the dismissal of the university vice-chancellor. However, given the context of financial struggles at UNZA, dismissals would be a witch-hunt exercise. As primary intervention, the Government should rather adopt a holistic approach and consider increasing the UNZA grant to 50 percent. Secondly, government should emulate other universities in the SADC region by paying UNZA’s wage bill so that the university management can spend resources on other equally competing needs like research, which currently has no funding. This approach shall be more reasonable than that of merely removing a particular management team, as proposed by Dr M’membe. firstname.lastname@example.org