BOTSWANA: New tertiary education policy

Botswana's parliament recently approved a new tertiary education policy, Towards a knowledge society, for the stable and rapidly growing southern African nation. The major goals of the new approach to tertiary education are to enhance relevance, ensure quality, maintain diversity of choice and increase access - including more than doubling the ratio of young people entering tertiary education within two decades. The country's capacity for research and innovation is to be expanded from a single national university to other tertiary institutions and a second public university.

A key objective in the new policy is to achieve a gross enrolment ratio or GER for tertiary education of 17% by 2016 and of 25% by 2026. Currently the GER - the ratio of 18 to 25-year-olds enrolled in tertiary education - is estimated to be 11.4%. This is significantly higher than reported in previous years, because of the establishment of private tertiary institutions in Botswana, but is still lower than other small middle-income nations around the world.

Parliament viewed the need for a new policy as a priority. Political leaders were convinced this was necessary because of the "heightened understanding of the public and private benefits associated with tertiary education" (as measured by rates of return analysis).

The overall objective, as part of the country's Vision 2016 which calls for an educated and informed nation after 50 years of independence, is to transform Botswana into a 'knowledge society' with research and innovation the cornerstones of development. It is believed tertiary education systems serve to stimulate growth by producing people who are "inventive, pioneering ... creative, talented and capable researchers" and who can produce high-impact research to achieve transformation.

Parliament adopted the policy on 10 April, including a new definition of tertiary education: "All formal education programmes beyond the level of senior secondary embracing technical and occupational-specific programmes and those with a strong theoretical foundation through to advanced research qualifications."

The consequence of this is a call for a unified and integrated tertiary education system that recognises both government and private sector initiatives, all under the direction of the Ministry of Education and Skills Development (the new name for the former Ministry of Education).

Parliament also approved a new framework to help develop tertiary education. The first step will be to create a Department of Tertiary Education within the newly named Ministry of Education and Skills Development. This is instead of establishing a higher education ministry, as has been done over the years in many African nations. A new National Qualifications Framework will be established and quality assurance will be administered from the ministry.

A Human Resource Development Council (HRDC) will be established to focus on tertiary education and training and report directly to the ministry. It will be the key policy formulation body for Botswana's integrated tertiary education system. It will also work to assist integration between human resource development and the requirements of the workforce and economy.

But there are many unresolved issues in the Towards a knowledge society policy. First, the timing or the indication of the phases for implementation and how implementation will be approached are missing. Similarly, a new structure has been proposed but not the process for achieving it and an implementation strategy is not there.

Second, amalgamation of the scattered and marginal colleges of education and health and nursing institutes (of a size lacking efficiency and economies of scale) should take place. It did in most newly independent African nations soon after independence. In Botswana, various colonial arrangements have continued over the last 42 years, and even been built on instead of changed and rationalised. Will there eventually be one university of education and fewer health and nursing colleges?

Third, the new tertiary education policy is silent on types of structures to be pursued. There is a danger that diploma-granting colleges may continue, instead of evolving into unified degree-granting university colleges that could after time transform into universities.

The Human Resource Development Council will face many challenges, especially when it comes to autonomy of institutions and ownership and control when the government is the main source of funds. There will be strong tendency towards an authoritarian and centralised system instead of a decentralised and autonomous system.

Academic freedom is absent from the current policy, but it is a major issue for staff in university-level institutions. The focus on research and development is also silent, at this stage, on who owns the results of research.

Many of the recommendations made in the new tertiary education policy will require further debate and could take years to be implemented. The creation of a "single, integrated, differentiated, coordinated tertiary education system" is a challenge that will be difficult to achieve quickly.