ZIMBABWE. Harare. It’s been over 5 months since Zimbabwe, along with most other countries, has been under lockdown due to COVID-19. In the education sector, many students have failed to cope with online learning due to data price hikes. In a country like Zimbabwe where people live on hand to mouth finances, low cost access to data for online learning is essential.
Children as students and breadwinners
A survey conducted by Transcontinental Times shows that most students failed to learn online due to high data costs. Some of the students must provide for themselves in terms of tuition, transport, accommodation, and food. Sibonginkosi Ncube, a Lupane State University student and a single mother, said it’s irrational to attend online classes whilst there is no food on the table.
“Considering the hard times that we are facing during this pandemic we are trying hard to make ends meet. It’s not easy to learn online because my salary is not enough for the upkeep of my children and to pay their fees. The informal sector has become the main employer in Zimbabwe due to the economic meltdown.
A recent study by the International Monetary Fund shows that Zimbabwe has the second-largest informal sector in the world. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has shut many income operations that bring income to most families. The closure of many business and transport sectors has worsened the situation as they facilitate the movement of products. The situation has forced many into online business.
Data access critical for both business and eductaion
Mitchell Chitima, a Harare Polytechnic student is struggling to balance her income with online learning as her business is currently down. She is also forced to sell personal items (shoes and clothes) online which requires data to connect with customers. “I am struggling. The lockdown measures that have been put in place limited my income. Right now l am stuck at home, yet l am required to attend classes online,” she said. “Sadly even if l subscribe for data to last the month, it depletes within days.”
The government turned deaf ear to student grievances
The constitution of Zimbabwe under section 75 enshrines the right to education but e-learning has curtailed this freedom to many students. However, the country’s authorities turned a blind eye to the data increases by service providers. Econet, Netone, and Telecel are the main service providers with Econet the leading entity. Organizations and student unions have tried to call for data reduction campaigns, but it was to no avail.
The Zimbabwe National Student Union (ZINASU) recently wrote a letter to the Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education concerning the issue but according to the office, there was no response. ZINASU National Treasurer Abel Runga told Transcontinental Times that the inability of some students to attend online classes is a form of discrimination. “We have called for, prior to COVID-19, that the government is supposed to provide e-learning data bundles. Otherwise, we are discriminating some students’ access to education, since they are being asked to pay fees and buy data bundles which are exorbitant,” he said.
There is a need to cope with reality
Runga also reiterated that the government should cooperate with service providers to allow students to access institutional websites at zero cost. “We welcome e-learning, and we are a versatile generation to technological advancements, but we should not discriminate. We need to act like we are well advanced.”