BOTSWANA: New science university languishes in limbo

The new Botswana International University of Science and Technology, BIUST, at Palapye 260 kilometres nort-east of the capital Gaborone, faces further delays and a reduction in its vision to be a world-class university. New decisions by the government could alter its scope and direction, and it looks very unlikely that BIUST will be able to open before August 2011.

Botswana's second public university faces being altered in conception by political forces beyond its control.

It could even be downgraded to a technikon-type institution and frozen at its phase one intake of 256 students. If this happens it would become impossible for BIUST to rival the University of Botswana, and the country's only public university would continue to operate without any real competition.

On 8 November in his state of the nation address, President Seretse Khama Ian Khama said that the BIUST founding campus was in progress "though delays and cost escalations in the project are likely to affect government's initial plan for the university to open in March 2011.

"Due to the difficult financial situation arising from the recent recession and changes in the tertiary education landscape, the Ministry of Education and Skills Development is in the process of reviewing the BIUST project to determine the appropriate scope and focus in the context of what we can currently afford," he said.

Though phase one is estimated to cost US$75 million, phase two with add-ons might cost more than US$500 million.

The changing tertiary education landscape covers a broad series of issues.

The major one is an explosion in private tertiary institutions and their recruitment of students, accompanied by a dramatic increase in the proportion of the age group enrolled at the tertiary level. The higher education sector now accounts for 5% of GDP and has risen to 49% of the national education budget.

The official goal of the government, as articulated by the Tertiary Education Council, was to have 20% of the age group enrolled. It rose as high as 17.3% at the start of the global economic crisis. Enrolment subsequently declined, because of reduced sponsorship, to 15.2% of the age group, and now hovers around 14%. The private tertiary sector has shrunk due to rising costs and a reduced supply of students.

Recent reports show high rates of students discontinuing their studies at some private institutions: 864 students at Limkokwing University; 306 at NIIT's Botho College; but only 41 at the University of Botswana.

The average cost to the government of sponsoring a student was: US$ 6,380 at Limkokwing University; nearly US$7,000 at NIIT; and US$5,000 at the University of Botswana. The Gaborone Institute of Professional Studies per student costs averaged US$4,735.

The challenge now is to improve quality across the tertiary sector.

This could be achieved by closing some institutions - already one college of education in Lobatse has closed - and the amalgamation of others. Under consideration is the formation of community colleges to absorb some of the output from O'level and provide the first two years of tertiary education at a lower cost.

The delays in construction of BIUST at its permanent location in Palapye finally caused its council and senior staff to begin considering opening at an alternate location. One possibility, a new college at Oodi outside Gaborone, has been rejected, so they are now looking for alternative locations.

Meanwhile the government has put a freeze on hiring at BIUST, an action that will hamstring its current developmental plans. BIUST's higher salaries were one of the factors contributing to a September strike at the University of Botswana.

Some government leaders and high-ranking politicians are calling for BIUST to be abandoned. So far this option has been rejected. The argument that the pool of qualified O'level students is too small to support more than one public university teaching science and technology has been rejected by BIUST.

It claims that although around 50% of school-leavers fail mathematics, the number of pupils who excel in science and maths would more than support two foundation year programmes in science. Further, BIUST argues that the University of Botswana having space for fewer than 750 foundation year science students a year constitutes a major blockage to national development, and that the country does need the second university with an intake of 1,000 students a year building up to 6,000 students in phase two.

BIUST has moved diligently to train across the world a core of 70 staff to masters level, of whom a proportion are already enrolled in doctoral programmes.

The Minister of Education and Skills Development, Venson-Moitoi, has appointed a committee to review the future of BIUST, including costs, duplication of facilities, future human resource requirements for graduates and the viability of BIUST's phase two.

The review team is led by economist Dr Happy Fidzani, Director of the Botswana Institute for Development Policy Analysis, a think tank that advises the government, and statistician Dr Burton Mguni, a former deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Botswana who now chairs another tertiary institution (a possible conflict of interest).

The review team is deficient in members with sound backgrounds in science and technology, which suggests that a political solution may be sought. The team is expected to report to the minister in two months, but with Botswana's lengthy closures of offices during the end-of-year holiday season, it will effectively have far less time to work.

If BIUST is scaled back it will have serious consequences for four private-public partnerships (PPPs) that have been lined up and for businesses that have been investing in the new university in anticipation of benefitting from it. PPP consortia have been created and are ready to move.

In essence, if there is no phase two there will be no BIUST. Some type of technikon might be rescued from what has been accomplished so far.

Botswana already faces major resource commitments to build both a new faculty of health science at the University of Botswana and a new teaching hospital, instead of using the six hospitals in the greater Gaborone area and developing community-based medical care. These institutions will cost billions of pula, the local currency.

A major lesson from the BIUST saga concerns how to build a new university.

With hindsight it is recognised that relying on the Ministry of Education and Skills Development and on a government architectural and building programme, was a serious mistake. Both lacked the experience and vision to drive a new university. The few buildings that have been constructed at Palapye do not live up to the standards of a world-class university.

BIUST should have had from the start: an independent council; a vice-chancellor and senior staff to plan the institution, both a physical master plan and one for programme development; opened at a temporary site; and, following an international competition, moved to a purpose-designed campus that could have become a world-class university.

Recognition of these problems has caused some people to suggest that the Botswana College of Agriculture outside Gaborone should swap premises with BIUST and move to Palapye.

Locating BIUST in Palapye was a political decision, and not favoured by the commission and the task force that researched the new university. The task force report handed to the education minister in 2004 favoured the university being located in Francistown, where there is sufficient infrastructure to support a university of science and technology.

So while BIUST has been in the works for six years, Botswana's second public university now languishes in limbo.