Zimbabwe’s Education Crisis: A Tale of Debt, Deficits, and Departing Teachers

At the heart of Zimbabwe’s education system lies a crisis fuelled by debt, deficits, and an exodus of teachers. Zimbabwe’s debts and economic crisis have been attributed to various causes – some external and some internal – dating back decades including the Economic and Structural Adjustment Programmes (ESAP) of the 1990s and the global recession of 1991/2, devastating droughts and chaotic implementation of land reforms, and military involvement in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Despite a history of high literacy rates and once-respected education standards, Zimbabwe now faces significant challenges including hyperinflation, extreme poverty (estimated at 44% in 2022), inequality and neopatrimonialism which are directly impacting education, and hindering critical investments needed to maintain both availability and quality of education and retain skilled educators.

The Debt Situation of Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe’s consolidated debt stands at a staggering USD 17.7 billion, with a substantial portion owed to international creditors. The main creditors include institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), and various bilateral partners, including China. This debt distress classification, coupled with large external arrears representing 50% of the total external debt, severely limits the country’s access to further concessional international financing.

According to the Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development (ZIMCODD), which provides detailed data and analysis, Zimbabwe’s total debt is equivalent to 99.6% of GDP up from 84.7% of GDP in 2021 due to arrears on interest and principal payments on existing debt. This is further exacerbated by penalties imposed for late payment. Simultaneously, there has been a rise in domestic public debt. This increase is due to the government’s inability to access more external debt because of its poor track record, as well as the non-payment of government guaranteed debt by private beneficiaries and individuals. As the government seeks to double its revenue generation in the 2024 financial year to finance development as well as debt servicing, it must prioritize progressive tax reforms and bolster social protection programs, ensuring that debt reduction efforts align with human rights principles and do not deepen existing poverty and inequality.

The country’s long-standing default status and arrears with multilateral lenders are compounded by currency depreciation and hyperinflation. These financial burdens directly impact funding for the public sector including education, hindering investments needed to maintain quality education and support poverty reduction initiatives. The 2024 national budget proposals, announced in quarter four of 2023 indicate government is set to spend more on debt servicing in 2024 (7.2%) than is the amount earmarked for social protection (4.1%), of education is part.

The Teacher Exodus: A Symptom of Economic Woes

The Zimbabwe Teachers’ Association reports that approximately 300 teachers bid farewell to their classrooms each month, due to the nation’s comparatively low wages compared to the rest of the southern African region and poor working conditions, among other causes. Driven away by meagre salaries averaging between USD 200 – USD 350 per month against the backdrop of hyperinflation, these educators leave behind classrooms burdened with oversized student populations and limited resources. The exodus not only compromises the quality of education but also exacerbates the existing teacher-pupil ratio crisis.

With a reported deficit of 50,000 teachers in 2023, the strain on educators and in turn students is palpable. According to the 2021 Annual Statistics Report from the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education, the teacher-to-learner ratio in Zimbabwe’s secondary schools was reported as one teacher for every 25 students, aligning with the ministry’s recommended thresholds. However, educators argue that the actual ratio tends to be higher. On average, government schools accommodate around 45 students per teacher, significantly surpassing the UNESCO-recommended ratio of 25 students per teacher.

The Right to Education: A Fundamental Human Right

The teacher exodus in Zimbabwe, driven by low wages exacerbated by the country’s heavy debt burden, poses a significant threat to the right to education, a human right which has an impact on the enjoyment of so many other rights such as work, livelihood, participation in society etc. International Law recognizes education as a universal right, Zimbabwe’s current situation stands in stark contradiction to this principle.

The exodus of teachers not only affects the quality of education but also limits access to education completely for many children, particularly those in rural and marginalized communities. This violates the right to education as enshrined in various international human rights instruments, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which Zimbabwe is signatory to as well as the country’s Constitution.

The Cry for Investment in Education

As Zimbabwe grapples with debt distress and the exodus of teachers, urgent appeals for reform and investment echo through the education sector.

The Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (ARTUZ) has sounded the alarm on the dire state of education in the country. In a November 2023 statement, they emphasized the crucial role of education in sustainable development and demanded immediate and substantial funding for education in the 2024 budget.

The government’s 2022 National Budget Statement revealed a concerning trend where declining tax revenues are undermining available government finances and in turn impacting delivery of public services, including education. However, in 2023 the tax to GDP ratio rose to 18% and is projected at 19.2% in 2024, surpassing Africa’s average of 16%, and signalling hope for increased investment in public services. The 2024 Budget Statement highlights revenue growth from all tax sources, including contributions from both direct and indirect taxes. However, the 2024 goal to double revenue collection, especially from the informal economy, raises concerns about impact on vulnerable groups. The Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (ZIMRA) 2022 annual report published that tax incentives in 2022 stood at ZWL 1.6 trillion (approx. USD 2.4 billion), which relative to revenue amounts to 84% for the same year. This raises the need for robust human rights impact assessments and cost benefit analyses to justify the high ratio of incentives relative to revenue especially where generating sufficient revenue to realise human rights is difficult.

The 2023 budget, while showing a slight increase, fell far short of the recommended allocations for education. ARTUZ highlights that the allocated ZWL 631.3 billion (approx. USD 109 million), a mere 14% of the total national budget, is insufficient. The union demands a minimum budget allocation of 20% of GDP, aligning with the World Education Forum’s 2000 Dakar Declaration, to adequately support the education sector. Furthermore, in accordance with both Zimbabwe’s human rights obligations and international standards such the SDGs and the Incheon Declaration, which emphasizes inclusive and equitable quality education for all, this increased funding is crucial for achieving that and ensuring that no one is left behind.

Conclusion: A Call for Sustainable Solutions

Zimbabwe’s education crisis is a multifaceted issue intertwined with debt distress, financial deficits, and the exodus of teachers. Addressing this crisis requires a holistic approach that combines debt management strategies, increased investment in education through tax reforms, and fair compensation for educators.

As the government navigates its financial challenges, investing sufficiently in education must be at the forefront of its agenda. Sustainable solutions that ensure adequate resources for schools and fair wages for teachers creating an optimal learning environment for students are imperative. Only through concerted efforts and strategic investments can Zimbabwe pave the way for a brighter future where every child can access quality education.

In the face of mounting challenges, it is time for decisive action. Zimbabwe’s education system, once a beacon of success, now stands at a crossroads. The path forward requires bold investments, responsible debt management, and a genuine commitment to providing every child with the opportunity to learn and succeed. The future of Zimbabwe’s children, and indeed the nation itself, depends on it.