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NAMIBIA
University fights back against medical school attack
In an unprecedented move in Namibian higher education, the national university widely publicised the curriculum vitae of the dean of health sciences who is also founding dean of the new medical school. This follows an intense campaign criticising both him and the medical school curriculum.

There have been claims that Professor Peter Nyarango is poorly qualified and ill-experienced to run the medical school.

Earlier this year an unsigned letter purportedly written by some 15 medical specialists alleged that the medical school's curriculum was weak and demanded that new enrolment be kept at below 60 students a year. The letter also touched on the length of doctor training.

University of Namibia Vice-chancellor Professor Lazarus Hangula issued a hard-hitting statement and published the dean's curriculum vitae in four major newspapers, as he sought to reassure the nation that the training of doctors was proceeding according to plan and was in capable hands.

Before the medical school opened in 2010, all of Namibia's doctors were trained elsewhere, many of them in neighbouring South Africa.

Early last month Andrew Ndishishi, permanent secretary of health, joined the fray and was quoted by a local daily newspaper as among other things saying of Nyarango: "Is he even registered to treat anybody? Can he put his hands on a patient...?"

In February, the government appointed a technical committee tasked with investigating challenges faced by the school, which World Health Organization Director General Dr Margaret Chan once described as "highly inspiring".

The committee comprises representatives of the Ministry of Health and Social Services led by Ndishishi, the Ministry of Education led by Permanent Secretary Alfred Ilukena, and the university led by pro vice-chancellor for academic affairs and research, Professor Osmund Mwandemele.

Views of supporters

Supporters of the medical school and Nyarango have countered that the campaign is designed to stop Namibia training its own medical professionals, in keeping with the country's development blueprint Vision 2030.

Certified copies of Nyarango's professional certificates were also publicised. They show that he obtained a bachelor of medicine and a bachelor of surgery from Kenya's University of Nairobi in 1977, and a master of medicine in surgery from Nairobi in 1984.

He also obtained a masters in public health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the United States in 1994. The professor has nearly 40 years of experience including in teaching, research, curriculum development, consultancy, management and setting up new medical schools.

Hangula assured Namibians and countries that send students to receive a medical education in Namibia that the school of medicine had "been implementing an internationally accepted and quality assured medical education curriculum, with excellent training facilities and highly qualified, world-class human resources, most of whom are themselves medical specialists".

He said the intake of students in the school depended on several factors, not just availability of space but also present and future national needs.

Regarding the duration of training for doctors and the curriculum, which is regularly reviewed, Hangula said the medical programme lasted for five years and seven months. Determining the length of the course would be "one of the outcomes of the curriculum review process".

The vice-chancellor claimed that opposition to the school was designed to bar students - who are now in their final academic year - from progressing with their training and thus jinx efforts by the country to train its own doctors.

"What is happening now is an attempt to sabotage government efforts for universal health care by small and narrow interests."

Backdrop

Namibia first tried to set up its own medical school a few years after independence from South Africa in 1990, and a commission was established to look into the feasibility of such an initiative.

Some of the specialists who are now denouncing the curriculum, helped to develop it, and the school of medicine finally opened its doors in 2010.

The immediate reaction from some quarters was to question why - despite nearly two years of advertising and failing to attract a dean locally - the university hired a foreigner to head the school. The assumption was that Namibia had qualified, experienced and competent people who could take on this role.

That question has stalked the school of medicine like a shadow from its first day.

In early 2013 some critics began saying that the medical programme - which can run up to seven years, because students only join the school after a two-year pre-medicine course - was too short.

It was also argued that there were too many students and that specialists in the two designated teaching hospitals of Windhoek Central and Katutura were unable to cope with the numbers, which some argued should not exceed 45 per year at the most.

After several assessments, a decision was taken to also train students in the north of Namibia. Some students have since moved to the north and learning is progressing, although there are reports that some of the disgruntled specialists are still trying to throw a spanner in the works.

Delivering his address at the start of the academic year, Hangula said the university was determined to set up its own teaching hospital designed to provide advanced medical care, conduct research and train managers for the country's health facilities.

"The university and its council are vigorously exploring ways and means to make this happen sooner [rather] than later."

Meanwhile, the jury is still out.
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