The Zimbabwe National Students Union (Zinasu) has called for a thorough investigation into how First Lady Grace Mugabe acquired her controversial PhD degree and demanded resignations of all those involved in what seems to be an academic scandal of monumental proportions, including University of Zimbabwe vice-chancellor Professor Levi Nyagura.
This came as the Zimbabwe Independent failed for the second week running to speak to any of UZ's leaders and officials, starting with spokesperson Dennis Rwafa, registrar Sergeant Chevo, student records officers, acting dean of the Faculty of Social Studies Tichaendepi Masaya and Nyagura about the issue despite repeated attempts to do so.
Efforts to speak to University Council chairperson Washington Mbizvo and UZ Senate officials, led by Nyagura, also failed. Their phones were either not answered or not reachable. Attempts to reach them through landlines hit a brick wall.
Council is the UZ's executive authority and comprises 40 members. The chancellor, President Robert Mugabe, Nyagura, pro-vice chancellors and the president of the students' union are ex-officio members.
Senate is the academic authority of the UZ and consists of the vice-chancellor, pro vice-chancellors, deans of faculties, professors, chairpersons of departments and elected representatives of teaching staff and students.
While administrative and academic leaders of the UZ are running away from Grace's PhD scandal, the students' body has written to parliament asking it to investigate the awarding of the doctorate which it insists was done unprocedurally.
After engaging some senior academics privately, the Zinasu leadership held a consultative meeting at the UZ on Wednesday where they agreed the university administration should with immediate effect resolve the Grace PhD "scandal" in a manner that does not further damage the name, image, reputation and legacy of the institution, meticulously built since its establishment in 1957.
"If found guilty, Professor Nyagura and all those who took part in this scam should resign for engineering this fake doctorate," the Zinasu leadership said.
Not only students were prepared to talk, but senior academics were willing to shed light albeit anonymously, saying to get a PhD at UZ one goes through a number of stages in a long process.
"The first stage is an exploratory one where the person who wants to study meets informally with the relevant authorities of the university to discuss whether the topic which the student wants to explore is researchable and whether the university has competent professors to supervise the thesis," said a professor from UZ said.
"The student then has to apply to the Post-Graduate Office, which will send the application to the relevant faculty, for example Social Studies in Grace's case. The student is required to submit an application, together with a CV and a transcript of the previous degree studies.
"The faculty then submits the application to the relevant department. The chairperson of that department sends the application to the Post-Graduate Committee (PGC)."
The professor added: "Upon receiving the application, the PGC convenes a meeting to consider the suitability of the applicant to see whether the person has the appropriate academic qualifications; the research topic is workable and if there is a competent supervisor. A provisional or associate supervisor is then provided.
"After further consideration, it goes back to the PGC which then writes to the applicant informing him or her whether the application was successful after which the applicant can register and come up with a full formal proposal.
"The applicant is given six months to do the proposal. Many fail to produce it within that period and ask for an extension of up to three months. If they fail after the extension they are automatically out."
Sources say Grace did not follow all these procedures as her records are not there.
In terms of UZ requirements, for an MPhil, the candidate must have a good pass in an honours degree with at least an upper second class (2.1) or an approved equivalent and the minimum duration of study is two years for a full-time student and three years for a part-time student.
A DPhil candidate requires a good master's degree. An MPhil student who excels can however have his or her studies upgraded to DPhil. This only happens in exceptional circumstances where the student is distinguished.
Even then the minimum for a DPhil full-time student is three years and four years for part-time studies. Senior academics at the UZ said Grace did not meet the requirements, while she also did not spend the basic minimum time studying at UZ, making her acquisition of the PhD unprocedural.
"The academic committee and supervisor must explain Grace's situation. For it is the committee which vets and supervisor who tells the student that their thesis is ready for exams. The department recommends examiners, who include experts from the faculty concerned. There are usually one or two internal examiners and one or two external examiners depending on the thesis. Two out of them must agree that the thesis is solid and worthwhile," said the professor.
"All the examiners must write reports and this can take up to six months to produce. Thereafter, they convene viva voce or oral defence of the thesis before a panel that includes the examiners, chairperson of the department and dean of the faculty. Then the candidate can defend their thesis. The reports of the examiners are brought before the academic committee which goes through them to see if the process was done properly, but eventually it is the vote of the 15-member committee which is chaired by the vice-chancellor that awards the doctorate."
Pressure is mounting on the UZ to probe the issue as senior lecturers, including deans and professors, complain Grace did not follow procedures.
Grace graduated with a doctoral degree at the UZ a fortnight ago under controversial circumstances. Information obtained shows Grace initially registered for an MPhil two years ago, but was upgraded by her supervisor to a DPhil programme.
This implies that when Grace registered as an MPhil student, she must have had a good pass in an honours degree with at least an upper second class (2.1) pass. Those close to the issue said after failing at the University of London a few years ago, she enrolled with a Chinese university and obtained an undergraduate degree from there, although her graduation was not publicly celebrated like her daughter Bona's from Hong and Singapore.
But considering Grace's poor performance at the University of London where she was eventually deregistered after failing most of her (BA English) examinations in 2004, it is highly unlikely she has an honours degree with quality grades to qualify for an MPhil.
This has incensed UZ students who also wrote a letter, signed by Zinasu president Gilbert Mutubuki, addressed to the parliamentary portfolio select committee for higher education, copied to the Speaker of Parliament Jacob Mudenda, Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education and Nyagura, asking it to investigate circumstances under which Grace was awarded the doctorate.
The letter was delivered on Wednesday.
"We evaluated the academic principles, processes, procedures and systems requisite for one to acquire a real, not fake doctorate.
We also consulted academics and the outcome of the research was unfortunate and embarrassing to both university administrators and the recipient of the sham doctorate, and also an insult to students, the intelligentsia, doctors, professors and lecturers associated with the UZ," reads the letter.
Students called for Grace's doctorate to be withdrawn if it is established that procedure was not followed or there was manipulation of the process.