"It’s a private trust and we will not fund it," Biti told the Sunday Times this week. "We have not funded it since I became minister."
The scheme was established by President Robert Mugabe to help young Zimbabweans from poor backgrounds attain a meaningful education at a time when the country only had one university.
It is managed by Mugabe’s ally, Christopher Mushohwe, the Governor of Manicaland Province, who is the veteran leader’s former wartime personal assistant.
For years it was seen as a national project funded from national coffers.
"It is a fund created for sentimental reasons to take students to Fort Hare, so we cannot fund it. Besides we don’t have the money," Biti said. "The president wanted us to fund it to the tune of $54-million yet it’s private, just like the Reagan Foundation and the Thabo Mbeki Foundation."
Biti’s revelation comes at a time when the militant Zimbabwe Students Union (Zinasu) has been agitating for the funding of the programme to be stopped as it is largely viewed as partisan.
"We call upon the national treasury to halt funding of the notorious Presidential Scholarship but if they have done so that’s welcome news," Zinasu president Tinashe Mugwadi told the Sunday Times.
Last week Zinasu met Biti to discuss the poor funding of higher education in the country. They were concerned that the budget for this year was just a quarter of funds given to Mugabe’s scheme, which was said to have received about $50-million. Local education, whose standards have deteriorated to the extent that institutions are failing to pay lecturers, got $20-million in the 2011 budget.
Sources in the Ministry of Finance said Mugabe had on many occasions pressured Biti, who has been in the job since 2009, not to tamper with the scheme.
The Minister of High and Tertiary Education, Stanley Mudenge, also met the students union last week. He said: "The president will find the money elsewhere if Biti does not pay for the scheme."
When the scheme was established only the University of Zimbabwe was open and one needed to have high passes to gain entry. However, several state universities have since opened .
The presidential scholarship, which initially took students only to the University of Fort Hare, where Mugabe got his law degree, is now a free-for-all with children of Zanu-PF officials, senior civil servants, soldiers, war veterans and Mugabe’s relatives benefitting.
These children are now taken to other SA universities, such as the universities of Johannesburg, Venda, KwaZulu-Natal, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Free State. The prestigious universities of Witwatersrand, Rhodes and Cape Town are a preserve of children of government ministers and Mugabe’s cronies.
According to supporters of the scheme, the students will learn skills that they will bring home. But statistics show that most of the sponsored students go on to get jobs in South Africa rather than return to Zimbabwe. – TimesLive