MUTARE, Zimbabwe (UMNS) - The economic climate of Zimbabwe is making it difficult for some Africa University students to pay their fees and continue their education without further scholarship and financial aid assistance.

Although fees have not increased at the United Methodist-related university, that fact hardly seems to matter to families trying to survive an unprecedented economic decline.

Currently, the inflation rate is around 230 million percent. More than 80 percent of workers are unemployed. The vast majority of those who still have jobs are paid in Zimbabwe dollars which, due to inflation, are losing value by the hour.

"We have put measures in place and emphasized the need to collect meaningful fees from our students because we are committed to giving them an education that is of high quality, that is relevant and that equips them for professional and personal success," said Fanuel Tagwira, the school's interim vice chancellor.

"To do that, the university must be able to retain its lecturers with appropriate salaries and benefits, maintain and improve its facilities, and provide a good environment for the students," he added. "If students and their families don't contribute through fees, then we are likely to suffer the same fate as other universities in Zimbabwe - broken-down infrastructure, no lecturers to teach our courses - and be forced to close our doors to students."

Family sells livestock

Students are trickling in to pay their fees and getting back to class. As of Jan. 19, nearly 700 students had paid their fees and registered for second semester courses. University officials are confident that most of the 1,500 students who enrolled at the start of the academic year will return to continue their studies.

Evelyn Chipangura is the fifth of 10 children and the first to attend college. She has finished two and a half years of a four-year degree program in health services management at Africa University, thanks to a combination of family support and university financial aid.

This semester a brother in South Africa provided money for a portion of her fees, and her father is selling off some of the family's livestock to raise funds to pay the balance.

For quite a number of families with precarious finances, the answer is a scholarship or financial aid grant from the university. In this academic year alone, Africa University awarded $1.2 million (US) in assistance to 430 students with the aim of ensuring that it is not an elitist institution.

'They have to finish'

A small minority of students and their parents say that although their incomes cannot cover the fees, they understand the institution must take steps to ensure that it remains open, fiscally sound and sustainable.

One such parent is Shelly Musandu from Zimbabwe's capital city, Harare.

"The (fees) policy may be out of our reach, but it is fair," Musandu said. "I never realized the facilities that you have for our kids. . After taking a tour of this place, my mind was changed. We speak from our homes with no idea of the good things our kids are being offered and exposed to. We don't want these facilities to go.

"Do I understand what the university is trying to do? Absolutely!" said Musandu. "We chose Africa University for my daughter's program in health sciences because it is the best. . As I look around at the grounds, the buildings, the computer services, I see that there is a lot to maintain here, and I ask myself, how else are you to pay your bills?"

So far, the Musandus have only able to raise about a quarter of the money they need for the second semester fees, but Musandu is determined to see her girls graduate.

Economy, currency collapse

"The fees are too much, not only for Zimbabweans, but for everyone," Chipangura said.

In the past, students like Chipangura and Jasse and their parents would pay some or all of the required university fees in Zimbabwe dollars. Payment in Zimbabwe dollars worked well when the currency was stable. But, as Zimbabwe's economy collapsed, so did its currency.

The rapid decline in the value of the currency, combined with increasing demands from suppliers for goods and services to be paid in foreign currency and a shortage of cash in the local banking system, left the university struggling to maintain the quality of its service.

Andra Stevens serves as director of public information at Africa University.