BOTSWANA: Two stalled institutions to open in 2012

After years of delays, both the Botswana International University of Science and Technology and the Oodi College of Applied Arts and Technology are to open next year. The new institutions will give a major boost to the country's ability to produce high-level skills.

On 26 October cabinet gave the green light to the Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST). In his state of the nation address last month, President Ian Khama (pictured) said the new university would enrol its first students in 2012.

Khama said a ministerial task team "established to determine the future direction of the institution in terms of its scope and focus, and also taking into account issues of affordability" had completed its work. After reviewing the recommendations, it had been agreed that the university would "continue to be implemented in a phased manner".

While recognising the need for a second public university in Botswana, Khama was silent on contentious issues in the review team's report on the future of BIUST.

For instance, it is understood by staff at the University of Botswana, the Botswana College of Agriculture and BIUST that the recommendations related to moving some programmes from the two existing institutions to BIUST will not be implemented.

Both existing institutions worked hard behind the scenes to oppose the committee's proposals that the college of agriculture become part of BIUST and that the University of Botswana's graduate engineering programmes and research centre at Maun be transferred to the new university.

Finding a way forward

Having been given the green light, BIUST must now find a way forward.

As a parastatal organisation, the nation's second university has greater ability to mobilise and implement compared to an institution totally under the umbrella of a government ministry and department where innumerable bureaucratic constraints prevail.

BIUST Acting Vice-chancellor Professor Steve Howell and his staff have been looking for a site so that the university can open with 250 foundation-year students on 10 first-year programmes in August 2012. As BIUST grows it will add new courses until its reaches a target of 6,000 students.

The building programme at Palapye in north-east Botswana, where BIUST is situated, is way behind schedule. There have been agonising delays, cost overruns and problems with the quality of construction. BIUST does not yet know when its buildings will be completed. It was therefore deemed urgent to find a temporary site.

Having been many years in the making, it is felt that any further delays in opening BIUST would be unacceptable.

The Ministry of Education and Skills Development has been sponsoring students in priority areas of science and technology to study outside the country in South Africa, Southeast Asia, Oceania, Europe and North America, where the costs are three to five times per student more than if they were educated locally.

By opening in 2012 at a temporary site it is estimated that BIUST will save the government money. After an extensive search BIUST focused on unused capacity at the Oodi College of Applied Arts and Technology (OCAAT), where it will share facilities next year and in 2013 if required.

BIUST plans to grow slowly in the first few years. The 45 staff currently working at BIUST have been living in the Gaborone area, and some have for the past year been using vacant offices at OCAAT. The 60 Batswana currently in staff development programmes, 22 for doctorates, will begin to be available as lecturers from next year.

A task force has been considering options for cooperation and development between the two institutions. BIUST will supply laboratories at OCAAT to university standard and with state-of-the-art equipment, which will eventually be transferred to the permanent site at Palapye.

There are a number of key problems.

One is staff and student housing in Oodi, 25 kilometres north of Gabarone, which will not be available at the college for BIUST. Staff will commute and it is hoped that the people of Oodi and nearby communities will help to provide off-campus housing for students.

The task force has agreed that BIUST and OCAAT can share the library, cafeteria and open classrooms and some laboratories. Other space will be reserved for the different programmes of both institutions. It is now working to ensure improved internet connectivity and fibre optic links. BIUST will be the first tertiary institution in Botswana to accept online applications, from January 2012.

Howell, whose doctorate in chemical engineering is from the University of British Columbia and who has taught at many universities including in the United States and Zimbabwe, has already served at BIUST for two years.

He shares the BIUST vision to be a "research-intensive university designed to produce employment-ready future engineers, scientists and technologists for Botswana". He said that to open at a temporary site "may compromise delivery, but there will be no compromise on quality".

Howell believes in the objective to sustain BIUST as an international university, with international staff and students and at standards and quality that compete globally. Already a number of international agreements are in place including support from the European Union.

BIUST also has a commitment to promote applied research relevant to Botswana. When fully operational at Palapye, it will have 40% of its students at graduate level.

Now that BIUST has been reviewed positively and endorsed by the government, it has a stronger mandate than before to move forward. The hope is that it will not have to open for a second year at OCAAT, with another planned 250 students in August 2013, but will by then have moved to the university's purpose-built campus in Palapye.

The new college at Oodi

The Oodi College of Applied Arts and Technology is one of four technical colleges that teach to diploma (but not degree) level. The others are the Gaborone Technical College, Botswana College of Engineering Technology also in the capital, and Francistown Technical College.

OCAAT was delayed in opening because of problems in construction. The buildings are now finished, although occupation certificates are outstanding. Tuwana Construction, which built the US$27 million institution intended to cater for 1,200 students, has had the defects period extended a year to April 2012.

Located on underdeveloped land outside Oodi village, the buildings are set out on a cross with a dramatic centre that will serve as a relaxation and entertainment area and is also suitable for theatrical and musical events.

Another factor that has taken more time than originally anticipated is getting new courses approved by the Botswana authorities. Once courses have been approved they are referred to an international partner, the Scottish Qualifications Authority, to be vetted.

OCAAT will open in January 2012 with 128 students in four of the 13 programmes the college will eventually offer. They are advanced certificates in multimedia and in ICT, a certificate in applied laboratory science, and a foundation certificate in sports recreation and leisure.

The senior administrators at OCAAT, who have been working on its development for a number of years, were joined last May by 60 other staff, most of them specialist teachers from senior secondary schools who have been receiving in-service training to enable them to become tertiary lecturers. The principal is Mildred Boduwe.

It is anticipated that by May 2012 an additional round of programmes will commence with 64 new students in jewellery design and manufacture, visual arts, and health and social care. This expansion will be permitted as more of the new buildings have faults rectified and certificates of occupation conferred.

Other programmes are to commence in 2013 and student numbers will grow to 1,200 over the next four years, with OCAAT reaching full capacity in 2015. As a non-degree granting tertiary institution its vision concerns the development of applied arts and technology.

With an eventual joint capacity of 7,200 students, the new university and college will together provide a significant boost to the post-secondary sector of this middle-income African country that is determined to shift from dependence on natural resources and tourism to a more knowledge-intensive value-added economy.