The University of Zimbabwe recently suspended and later reinstated two senior consultants from the College of Health Sciences in what observers labelled a “circus”.
The two consultants, well- known paediatric surgeon Mr Bothwell Mbuvayesango and cadiac specialist Dr David Chimuka, were accused of breaching their UZ contract of employment resulting in the initial action taken by the university against the two. Mr Mbuwayesango was suspended without pay and benefits pending investigations while Dr Chimuka’s contract was terminated, moves that irked fellow lecturers from the medical school resulting in them indicating their intention to collectively withdraw labour, demanding reinstatement of the two. Senior Health Reporter Paidamoyo Chipunza (PC) interviewed UZ Vice Chancellor Professor Paul Mapfumo (PM) on this and other issues.
PC: Prof Mapfumo, the UZ reinstated two senior consultants it had suspended for barely 24 hours. Can you shed more light on circumstances surrounding the two decisions?
PM: Yes, it is true, that is what happened. But the initial decision was part of our internal monitoring of how our staff discharge their duties. So if we pick up things that require our action to correct them, we then take such action and in this case, we thought there was a breach related to how the doctors were fulfilling their contractual obligations with the university. I am, however, not at liberty to discuss this supposed breach in public because it has to do with someone’s contract but it’s really issues to do with whether they compromise the deliverables that we expect in their discharge of duty.
PC: So what then came out to the public is that these two doctors were accused of inciting mass job demonstrations in the health sector. What is the university’s policy regarding involvement or implication of its staff in such actions?
PM: Putting that into context, UZ lecturers are not on strike, so we expect them to deliver their duties normally. I want to decouple what is happening in the broader health sector and what the UZ consultants are expected to do. They can offer their services elsewhere in private practice, in public hospitals but that is a different contract they can have. They should not compromise their core obligation in terms of contract to deliver what UZ expects from them.
PC: Having said that, further accusations against UZ are that you then victimised these two for their involvement in a contract that does not involve the university. How do you respond?
PM: We want to decouple that and say the “power action”, as it came out in the media, was not about victimisation. There was no victimisation. Yes, we are a university and we also have to watch what is happening in the country and that is how we get involved to also help on how we solve some of the key challenges facing the nation, so we cannot also disassociate ourselves from what is happening but the point on decoupling is really on contractual obligations.
We are not saying we are penalising a member because they did whatever elsewhere, we are saying don’t compromise the delivery of services in the university on the basis of what is happening elsewhere when you have a duty here. More so when here we are not in quarrel.
PC: If that was your position, why then did you reinstate the two barely 24 hours from suspension and termination of contract. Can one say your initial decision was ill informed?
PM: No, it wasn’t ill informed. Following their suspension, the Zimbabwe Medical Association (ZiMA) requested for dialogue, which we then had on Wednesday. They made their submissions and I also had my submissions and our position as a university was to say we do not want this connectivity because your contract is different with the contract you might be having elsewhere.
ZiMA also argued that the medical field was interconnected at the same time they were also revealing to us information that they thought we didn’t have, which could help in our determination. We also looked at the implications of our decision considering the atmosphere and our role is really not to add fuel to what is happening but to help in finding solutions to those problems. So we did not take away the fact that UZ correctly followed its due processes but we then became conscious of the wider environmental issues.
PC: Others believe the way things unfolded in those two days was more of a circus, how do you respond?
PM: It might look so but it’s not. Remember part of what we have to do as a university is to be responsive and dynamic to what is happening on the ground. Yes, UZ absorbs that pressure and those kind of perceptions from the public but I honestly applied my mind to all the decisions. We are here to make decisions.
Yes, there could be variations to a decision but I was not there to demonstrate that I can fire them, no, that wasn’t about that because we were not fighting anyone and the fact that there was a mediator, we also had to open up to their concerns and that is exactly what we then did. In fact, the reversal was culmination of a huge process that started early in the morning before 8am until 8pm. So no, it wasn’t a circus but it was actually a result of deliberations that had taken place the whole day.
PC: So following those deliberations, can one safely say no interruption of lessons then occurred as had been hinted before by lecturers from the medical school?
PM: I haven’t heard anything to the contrary of what we discussed with ZiMA, the whole Department of Surgery and the two concerned senior consultants. I want to believe lessons are proceeding as usual.
PC: Let us talk about junior doctors. At some point there were propositions that they should be treated as students since they will still be on internship. How far have those discussions gone according to your knowledge?
PM: The university signs off junior doctors after completion of their five years. This is when they are then transferred to the Ministry of Health and Child Care from the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education. So the two ministries are still discussing on when this handover-takeover should happen but we are also looking at our internal regulations as a university.
PC: So, who funds the education of junior doctors because some of the perceptions out there are that doctors’ studies are funded by taxpayers’ money?
PM: I would say it’s a mixture really because the system that is there is that they are still students, even when they are being hosted in another ministry where they are then paid salaries from the taxpayers’ money. So they are removed from a place where they are paying school fees to where they are actually being paid in the last part of their training, which is why the two ministries are talking.
PC: Talking of school fees payment, how has been the uptake of the recently introduced student grants for financially disadvantaged students?
PM: We are still working on the modalities on how to channel them before we assess the uptake. We have other institutions that have come to offer loans before. so we know uptake has been low because of certain things. So we are working on the framework of giving out these loans so that uptake is high while ensuring that it remains a revolving fund. So as UZ, students have not yet started accessing the loans.
PC: On other issues, what is the update regarding the UZ’s industrial park?
PM: We are accelerating establishment of the industrial park with the thrust that we want to have more and more focus in building capacities to produce. We have developed modules that will look at critical areas such pharmaceuticals, electronic equipment, food processing, engineering and value addition of agricultural products. Those that excel in concerned faculties will then go to the industrial park for further development of their innovations. We are hoping to start advertising for those programmes in February 2020 for possible enrolment in August in line with the Education 5.0 model.
PC: As we conclude our discussion, you might want to talk about some of the challenges the university is facing in its day-to-day operations?
PM: The current economic situation has not spared the university. We are faced with rising costs of almost everything yet we have not increased our tuition fees, making it difficult to cope. We are, however, trying to ensure that our agro side of the industrial park increases productivity and that has helped us to a greater extent.
Issues of water availability have also been of concern to the university. We do not have council water, we rely on borehole water but because the water table has gone down everywhere, we are also beginning to feel the pinch. So we are trying to draw water from our industrial park, which is a distance of about 10 kilometres to the campus reservoir. We, therefore, appeal to the corporate world to assist us in making this dream possible. Herald