BOTSWANA: National university closed until further notice

The University of Botswana has been closed down half way through the second semester by the Minister of Education and Skills Development, Jacob Nkate. The Minister exercised his authority under the university act last Wednesday following days of sometimes violent student demonstrations. All students were requested to leave the main campus in the capital Gaborone by noon that day, with the evacuation supervised by the paramilitary Special Support Group.

The students, led by the Students' Representative Council, have a list of grievances that seems to get longer as time passes.

They include the loss of off-campus allowance for some students. The government has denied the off-campus allowance to students who moved away from the university after being housed there before January 2009, leaving an accumulated space of over 1,000 beds empty in campus residences that were been built at great cost over the years by the government.

The students were also demonstrating in support of those who had failed courses and then lost their sponsorship. Students who failed and were repeating would no longer be sponsored to re-take courses. The government saw this as uneconomic and a waste of funds. The Ministry of Education also stated that students taking less than 15 credits were part-time students.

Tension has been building for some time. The week before, the SRC tried to make an urgent application to the High Court to force the Ministry of Education to pay all allowances due to students. The application was dismissed as it was not deemed urgent.

Marches on Friday 30 January and Monday 2 February were illegal as a permit had not been obtained. On the Monday, students claimed they were only walking peacefully to parliament to listen to the presentation of the budget speech by the Minister of Finance and Development Planning. They claimed they wanted to know how much the Minister of Education was getting and how much would be for them. They were stopped by the Special Support Group two blocks from the university and turned back.

The reason given for closing the university was violence against other students, and in Gaborone while marching, violence against citizens and the stoning of cars.

SRC activists for decades have tried to maintain student solidarity by claiming that a decision of a minority of students at an SRC meeting is binding on all students. This they believe gives them licence to chase students out of classrooms, the library (a national asset), dormitories and halls to make them join a march (whether they had obtained a permit or not).

The monthly off-campus allowance has been unduly generous. It was designed to cover renting a room, transport to and from the university, and meals. It was pegged at a level nearly three times the minimum wage and was more attractive to students than staying in campus housing. It is for this reason that the University of Botswana has experienced an exodus of students from halls of residence.

The Ministry of Education, in trying both to meet its targets of increased participation of the tertiary age group in higher education, and to reduce the cost of students abroad, particularly in South Africa and Malaysia, has allowed for the rapid expansion of accredited private tertiary institutions in the country.

The world financial crisis has affected Botswana, first with a decline in income from reserves held abroad (and managed by Williams College in Massachusetts), and now in a higher education funding crisis. The Ministry of Education was estimated to be under-spent by 600 million pula (US$78 million) in 2006-07 and 400 million pula in 2007-08. It is now over-spent by 900 million pula. The Minister of Education requested an additional budget of one billion pula. This was approved by Parliament. Such events would easily lead the students to believe funds were now available.

The University of Botswana had fully implemented semesters by 2004. The university has yet to introduce Winter School system where students can re-take or accumulate credits to cover courses they have failed, or better students can accelerate and complete a degree in three years instead of four.

University staff see winter as a time for research, reading, writing and taking a holiday break. That the university is in dire need of a third semester condensed into a short Winter School is a challenge yet to be faced by the it and the government.