Income inequality – The principal driver of educational disparities in Zimbabwe

By Angellah Mandoreba

The deep inequalities that exist between the rich and poor continue to rage across the globe and have become a cause for concern for the majority of citizens. These inequalities in their different forms and manifestations are driven by a myriad of factors depending on the context in which they exist. Key drivers of inequality range from political, social, economic and even environmental whose influence rests upon the country’s developmental status and policy processes. This short piece seeks to establish how income inequality promotes educational inequalities in Zimbabwe. Income inequality is one of the critical measures to understand the discrepancies between individuals in a given society but it can be best understood when it is linked to how it promotes other inequalities like those in education. Income inequality refers to the gap between individuals and households in terms of their disposable incomes resulting in income induced social stratification. Educational inequalities can be understood as the disparities in terms of access to quality education and those disparities are fuelled by several factors including parents’ level of education and their socioeconomic status, gender, race and religion. 

Education inequalities in Zimbabwe are not a new phenomenon rather they have roots in the historic racial segregation that dominated the pre-independence era when the education system was designed on racial grounds with the African mind being at the receiving end. Nevertheless, in as far as the post-independence government directed efforts towards an inclusive and equal education system in the country, it’s not yet “Uhuru” for the sector. In contemporary Zimbabwe, it’s no longer race influencing educational disparities but a number of factors chief among them, family income inequality. The educational inequalities in Zimbabwe are more pronounced now than before in as far as one can recollect.

Income inequality promotes education inequalities

As an entry point, Zimbabwe is faced with various challenges which are political, social, economic as well as climatic. However, the Southern African country is known for the economic malaise that characterised the past decade to date as citizens continue to hope for the better. The biting cash crunch, high unemployment rate coupled with the historic hyperinflation deteriorated citizens’ socioeconomic outlook, putting it bluntly, ordinary citizens are languishing in extreme poverty. It is critical to note that the socioeconomic woes bedeviling the country are man-made as the country has had no taste of good governance for the past decade and this gave birth to an ailing economy without hopes for resuscitation in the near future. Poor governance cultivated an enabling ground for the breeding of organised corruption and the cancer has spread in every sector, eating away Zimbabwe’s potential to reclaim its “breadbasket” status. Findings in the 2018 Auditor General’s Report bears testimony to this.

Due to its destructive nature, poor governance has not spared public service delivery which is in a deplorable state, undermining the dignity of citizens despite the Constitution providing for effective public service delivery. Effective social service delivery is not only important in ensuring that citizens have access to basic social services like education, health, water and sanitation but also helps in bridging the ever-widening inequality gap between the haves and the have nots. This is however not the case with Zimbabwe as the enjoyment of public services by citizens is slowly being turned from a right into a privilege. This is reflected in the way government and other responsible authorities’ handle issues of public service delivery. Water is now a precious commodity, public hospitals are now “death traps”, infrastructure is dilapidated, talk of the once enviable education system which is now in tatters with only a privileged few capable to access quality education. 

Hyperinflation against stagnant salaries has detrimentally eroded people’s disposable incomes such that most parents are finding it difficult to make ends meet and afford their children some education. Income inequality in Zimbabwe is promoting inequalities in education at various levels. The parent’s level of income determines the quality of school hence the parent’s ability to afford children quality education rests upon the availability of financial resources. Thus, family income has become the principal screening factor in the education sector. Opening of the 2020 academic year in Zimbabwe exposed worrying influence that income inequality has on the nature of education a Zimbabwean child can attain. The privatisation of education in Zimbabwe is now a lucrative business which further separated the rich from the poor. It is regrettable how standards in public education institutions have tremendously gone down and this has seen the financially abled parents resorting to private schools for quality services. What then is in store for the poor. During the week of opening the first academic term in 2020, social media was awash with Riverton Academy (based in Masvingo) cash receipts carrying payments of school fees worth one hundred and six thousand Zimbabwean dollars (ZW$106 000).  On the contrary, a picture of an adult man who was caught with stolen stationery was circulated on the same platforms. Various sentiments were aired in relation to these posts but very few discussions if any were made in relation to how this was an evidence of the deeply entrenched inequalities in education.  Clearly, that was no laughing matter as it showed the extent to which income disparities can affect different children’s access to quality education.

Public education schools are characterised by lack of standardized facilities and educational materials and in some cases shortage of teachers resulting in unfavorable teacher to student ratio. This compromises the quality of education offered resulting in parents who cannot afford private schools being left with no option but to send their children there. This has also been exacerbated by the hikes in school fees with families finding it difficult to afford all the required educational needs. Private schools with better facilities have remained a preserve of the few with a better socioeconomic status. The inequality manifests itself as there is no equal access to quality education between those who attend public schools and those who go to private schools.  

The inequality gets more pronounced between an urban and rural child. The majority of families in rural areas have no financial capacity to send children to boarding schools as such in most parts of the country’s rural areas. Children in rural areas are subjected to pathetic learning conditions such as students learn from under trees or sub-standard structures and are forced to walk unimaginable distances to and from school. What it means is that these children are not exposed to the same education as their counterparts in urban areas.

This having been noted, the most worrying part is the fact that pupils cannot reach their full potential when denied equal educational opportunities. Education greatly influences one’s personal development and the children’s eventual position in the socioeconomic ladder. It is therefore critical for the government of Zimbabwe to address these educational inequalities through finding ways of ensuring quality education to all. The International Monetary Fund economists have described income inequalities as the ‘defining challenge of our time’, thus it is imperative for the government to address the macroeconomic fundamentals to address the income inequalities which promote educational disparities.

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