Zimsec using a sledge hammer to crack a nut

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As always, so much happened in the past week, but my attention this week is three-fold – the Zimbabwe Schools Examination Council (Zimsec) English O-Level paper 2 and the scandal around the awarding of the doctorate degree to former First Lady Grace Mugabe.

By Paul Kaseke

In a shock announcement, Primary and Secondary Education minister Paul Mavima told the nation that candidates who sat for the Ordinary Level English Paper 2 would have to retake it following evidence of cheating.

It is the bizarre and irrational manner this decision was based on that makes it newsworthy. Firstly, evidence of cheating surfaced when the paper was written last year and several media reports picked up on this, but Zimsec and the ministry said nothing about this and took no action.

The evidence was already there, and suspects were identified yet they waited for four months to make their arbitrary decision.

Secondly, it is unthinkable why the rest of the students who wrote the exam and did not cheat are being punished for a minority that Zimsec and the ministry readily admit knowing.

It is those culprits who have been written to, who should face the music. Questions of additional costs to the parents need to be considered as well as some students have left the country or are out of the towns where they wrote etc. Surely, these costs should not fall on the shoulder of the parents who had already budgeted for other things.

To place the lives of thousands of innocent students on hold to deal with a non-existent reputational risk (it is fair to assume that the credibility of this body has been in question for years now) caused by a few identified students is akin to using a sledge hammer to crack a nut.

It is disproportionate to the kind of action the government seeks to remedy. Legally, the ministry has violated the right to administrative justice set out in the Constitution which requires those who exercise administrative power such as the ministry and Zimsec to do so in a procedurally, substantively fair manner, but it also requires that the action is rationally taken, proportional etc.

While there has been legal action instituted, I am afraid that direct reliance on this constitutional right will not be permitted because of a previous controversial judgment by the Constitutional Court which held in Zinyemba v Minister of Lands that one cannot use the right directly as the Zimbabwe Administrative Justice Act [ZAJA] should be used (despite the Act pre-dating the constitutional right and the right being broader than the Act itself).

That legal discussion and correctness of the judgment is for another time. What is important though is that there is legal recourse even in the ZAJA preventing government from such irrational decision-making.

Then there was the interesting scandal around the former First Lady’s degree. I don’t think there is any doubt that the degree was obtained dubiously and the fact that University of Zimbabwe vice-chancellor Levi Nyagura lashed out at his staff members to cover this up shows why the institution has been run down over the years more so under his tenure.

There are some basic questions that make it easy for us to determine the legitimacy of the degree:

lWhat prerequisites for PhD study did she meet considering there is doubt on her possession of a master’s degree?

lWho saw the proposal draft? How long did she take to come up with a proposal which is arguably the most time-consuming part of the PhD? Who reviewed it and approved it?

lWhy was she allowed to obtain a degree in a space of time that is shorter than the minimum required period of study? If exceptions applied, who granted these, when and why?

lWho are the external examiners who examined the thesis? Surely, they can easily be called to testify that they marked this and their reports can be considered too
Ultimately, a PhD is one of those qualifications that involves many people, forums and processes. It is, therefore, very strange that this PhD seems to have gone through all these processes only in the mind of the candidate and the VC of the university.

Perhaps if the registration and completion dates, progress reports, supervisor comments and drafts, external examiner reports etc can be released, we will have no issue believing that it is legitimate. Until then, everyone behind this sham of a degree must be held accountable and prosecuted where appropriate … just saying!

lPaul Kaseke is a legal adviser, analyst and former law lecturer with the Wits Law School & Pearson Institute of Higher Education (formerly Midrand Graduate Institute). He serves as director and current group chair of AfriConsult Firm. He writes in his personal capacity. You can give him feedback via email: feedback@paulkasekesnr.com or follow him on twitter @paulkasekesnr