NAMIBIA: Med school's 'missing males phenomenon'

The school of medicine at the University of Namibia, which opened its doors in 2009, is finalising admission of a second batch of trainee doctors amid growing concern over the low number of young men who are applying and qualifying to study medicine.

Last year the medical school admitted 54 pioneering medical students. Of these, 31 were women. Preliminary indications are that this year female students will be in the overwhelming majority. Previously, Namibian medical students had to study abroad, and most attended South African universities.

"We expect to admit 60 students, most of them young Namibians. A few of these will come from other Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries in keeping with practice at the university. It looks like we are going to have more female students again," Professor Peter Nyarango, founding dean of the medical school, told University World News.

Nyarango said the 'missing males phenomenon' was worrying and warranted investigation.

"The impact of this male-female imbalance on the future social dynamics of the country is unclear. Evidence from other countries shows that it is difficult to deploy staff in the face of such an imbalance. A married woman may resist deployment from where her spouse works," he said.

"In Namibia's case, we do not know whether there are fewer men who qualify to study medicine or whether they are just not interested in the field. Our view is that 20 years after independence there should be no such serious gender gap at university entrance.

"Namibia's next national census might throw light on this phenomenon," Nyarango said. The 2001 national population and housing census showed that women constituted 51% of the population.

In line with Namibia's national principle of equitable access to education, the medical school will, as far as possible, also ensure that each of the country's 13 regions has a presence in the school. But there are also challenges in realising this principle, because of low secondary school enrolments in some regions.

It is not clear why some areas of the country with sizeable populations have limited numbers of students who apply or qualify for admission to medical school. Nyarango said to tackle this issue the school has proposed embarking on intensive career guidance at secondary school level this year.

And the medical school is set to admit its first group of pharmacy students - 25 students who will study for four years.

"The increase in enrolment for medical training and the introduction of pharmacy has been made possible by the construction of teaching facilities near Katutura Hospital [in the capital Windhoek]. We are optimistic that the school of medicine - which is temporarily situated at the main campus - will move to the new campus before the end of April this year," Nyarango said.

Well-placed sources say the Namibian government has undertaken to provide additional funds for the further expansion of the medical school. When completed, the new campus will house the faculty of health sciences, comprising the medical school, the school of nursing and public health, and planned schools of dentistry and allied health sciences.

There is a need to upgrade the physical infrastructure of Katutura and Central hospitals to make them suitable for training and specialised care. Last November the Namibian government commissioned the medical school's board to spearhead preparations for this.

With the increase in the number of students the school, which last year had a staff of 12, has this year hired additional lecturers and professors from all over the world. They include pharmacy lecturers.

While the recruitment of experienced staff has hitherto been seamless, Nyarango revealed that attracting staff in clinical disciplines that include surgery, obstetrics and paediatrics remains difficult. "The school is considering various strategies to mitigate this challenge," Nyarango said.

One such tactic is to encourage local practising medical specialists to participate in the training of doctors on a part-time basis. The other is to collaborate with medical schools in the SADC region and beyond in sharing teaching staff.