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PARENTS of students enrolled at the Swaziland Christian University (SCU) will no doubt be relieved that His Majesty the King has ordered the re-opening of the institution following its unceremonious shut-down by the Ministry of Education.

This follows a visit to the King by Members of Parliament who had tried unsuccessfully to have the Education Minister Phineas Magagula reopen the university while its challenges were being addressed.
We thank His Majesty for his wise decision as we look forward to an amicable solution to the crisis that has engulfed the institution over the past several months. The ministry had closed the university in August, acting on the ‘instruction’ of the Swaziland Higher Education Council (SHEC), which serves as a regulator of tertiary institutions.

The regulator allegedly found that SCU lacked accreditation to the University of Pretoria as per its claim, had poor physical infrastructure in the laboratories and lacked prescribed books in the library, among other concerns.
This list was not convincing to warrant a closure in my books. A postponement of a graduation perhaps, but not a complete shutdown.

The country has numerous tertiary institutions with worse problems and this act was clearly vindictive given the history between the Education minister and the administration of SCU. Magagula was a founding member of SCU and he helped facilitate the funding agreement with government.

However differences emerged and they parted ways. The rest, as we all know, is history. Sadly, a lot of time has been lost, lecturers have gone unpaid and some students now suspect criminals following the arson attack on a house belonging to ICT Minister Dumsani Ndlangamandla at Mahwalala.

As we anticipate the reopening of SCU, we need to look at the bigger picture. In fact, an Education Indaba is necessary if we are to address the challenges facing our education system from grassroots to tertiary level. We cannot ignore the fact that all our institutions are facing one crisis or another which ultimately affects the quality of the certificates students come out with.

The underfunding of our education is the main undoing. Our University of Swaziland has resorted to forming a company to invest in money making ventures to supplement the government subvention that has been dwindling over the years. Government has found itself having to distribute funding to new universities and the situation is not about to get better anytime soon.

Over the past two months His Majesty has blessed the upgrading of two training institutions to university status. These are the Ngwane Teacher Training College and Matsapha Police Academy, both of which will be offering Degrees come next year.
This is a welcome development for the country that had, for decades, only one university. However, we are all aware of the huge cost implications for government in providing the necessary resources to facilitate effective delivery of the qualifications now on offer.

The immediate expense becomes the infrastructure, learning materials, scholarships and staff salaries among a host of other requirements. Looking at the ability of government to deliver effectively on these obligations with the institutions it currently supports, one is sceptical about the prospects of the new universities.

Government priority spending appears to be focused on raising the wage bill and widening the tax base in an economy that is without any new investments to create the necessary employment opportunities. Security forces, which enjoy the second biggest slice of the national budget allocation, have benefitted the most with hundreds of people being recruited, much against a need for a peaceful country.

As a result, government is currently faced with a close to E400 million cash-flow shortfall after receiving its Southern African Customs Union (SACU) receipts in the last quarter and a multimillion public debt that has left hundreds of businesses unpaid for months. There have been no indications of a fiscal adjustment plan to normalise the situation as wanton spending continues without remorse.

This at the expense of effective health service delivery that has suffered drug shortages across the country. Now it has to contend with a salary increase demand from public servants who were recently hypocritically told they were being offered zero per cent, only for government to secretly award its senior employees with a hefty adjustment.

With these challenges, how then do we secure enough funding for tertiary education? The scholarship recovery is well under way but its success lies in the availability of jobs for the graduates. Once all the money has been collected from those currently owing, then what?
We cannot afford to grow the number of tertiary institutions ahead of government’s ability to sustain them all because that would be simply creating more structures with a potential of violence when students can’t get their allowances on time, lack books and facilities, etc.  The King can only do so much and we have a responsibility to ensure that we do no set him up to fail his people. He, just like all of us, wants quality education for his people, not quantity.

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