May 7, 2004

Over 45 private schools closed due to school fees disputes

The authorities in Zimbabwe have closed down at least 45 private schools due to a dispute over school fees. Education Minister Aeneas Chigwedere said the schools had been closed because they increased their fees without government approval. "They throw Africans out simply by hiking fees," Mr Chigwedere said on state television. "We are dealing with racist schools. They are all former white schools, all racist." Notices have been placed on school gates informing parents and pupils of the closures and police officers are blocking the entrance to some schools. It was furthermore reported that 30.000 pupils would be affected by the closed schools. One of President Robert Mugabe's sons and children of many ministers and ruling party leaders are believed to be among those turned away. The education minister said the schools would not reopen until they had complied with government regulations allowing them to increase their fees by only 10% a year. Some schools have proposed raising fees by about 50% to counter the impact of the rampant inflation, currently running at 580%. Some of Zimbabwe's most prestigious schools are charging tuition fees of up to 30 million Zimbabwe dollars ($5.635) per year.

According to court papers, the Parents Teachers Association (PTA) is seeking a High Court order for the school to be reopened and the government's directive to be declared "null and void". Part of the application argues that Chigwedere's use of police to close the school was illegal. The official with the independent schools trust could not say whether other schools were considering legal action, but acknowledged "considerable activity on several fronts" aimed at reopening the schools. The main labour movement, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), said it disapproved of the closures. "While the ZCTU condemns the exorbitant fees charged by these schools, there was no point for the Ministry of Education to punish students," the union's secretary general, Wellington Chibebe, said in a statement. "The ZCTU would like to urge the government to immediately open these schools and allow students (to) proceed with their work," he added.

In his Independence Day address, President Mugabe had already criticised the increase in fees for private schools. "Our principal goal of attaining education for all appears to be in real jeopardy with some schools charging as much as 10 million (Zimbabwe) dollars a term," the president said. "The government will soon come up with arrangements which will continue to make education accessible to each and every child regardless of his status or family background." But some observers say the government has allowed the country's education system to decline, after it was greatly expanded after independence. State-run schools in the country are reportedly in a critical condition - with many having classes of around 80 pupils. There is also said to be a shortage of teachers, textbooks, desks and classrooms. A recent survey by an International Monetary Fund research group, reported that school enrolment had declined by 60% in Zimbabwe last year because of fee hikes in both state and private schools. (The Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg)


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