Student strike exposes university weaknesses

Starting in the last week of January, students went on strike at the University of Botswana. Studies were stopped and the university nearly closed. Surprisingly, the demonstrations had the support of students in two faculties famous for carrying on business as usual: science and medicine.

Their peers in the arts, education and social science have been more prone to striking. This year student grievances cut across all faculties, but were strongest in the sciences and medicine.

At the end of the first semester in December 2011, the University of Botswana had the highest number of students ever who had failed courses and been discontinued from the university. The largest number were in the science faculty, where it was reported that 600 students failed and discontinued while many others had to retake classes.

The university had put an end to allowing students to take supplementary examinations to improve their academic standing. It also, after 10 years of semesterisation, failed to establish any form of winter school or third semester where students could take courses for credit, either to make up failed courses or to accelerate and graduate sooner.

The majority of students were also upset by two unilateral decisions taken by Vice-chancellor Professor Thabo Fako. His was a political appointment, overruling the university council’s recommendations nearly a year ago.

The first was to stop the inter-varsity games held annually between Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland, on the grounds that there were no funds.

The second was to take steps to close 411, the number of the building where the student representative council (SRC) bar is located. This is in line with government polices intended to reduce the consumption of alcohol.

Previous vice-chancellors kept 411 open because it was seen to save lives. If students couldn’t drink on campus they went off-campus and some were killed in fights or accidents while returning to the university, or made sick by cheap, illegal brews.

The SRC president, Khumoekae Richard, and a few others were suspended following the strike. They went to the high court and won reinstatement. The court found that the charges against them were too “vague”. The SRC was also accused of holding meetings without permits, although one such gathering had been addressed by the vice-chancellor.

Medical school problems

The medical students joined the demonstrations for a variety of reasons. Their participation was led by a group of 36 medical students now in their fourth year of a five-year programme.

They are left out of 48 students who started medical studies in 2008-09 and were the best of all the science students who applied to study medicine. The second best were sent abroad to study in South Africa and Australia.

The students selected to stay now wish they had gone abroad. They report that the university has discussed closing the medical school and giving medical students a ‘gap’ year.

This elite group of students, if all had gone abroad, would be graduating in 2014. Now they do not know when they will finish formal studies and start internships. In the strike they carried a banner saying: “We are being punished because we are the best.”

The question of the size of medical schools in Africa is critical and cannot be ignored. Fifty years ago the viable size of an entering class in the United States was 80 medical students. Now it is 250. Economies of scale are lost and African nations, instead of working together, may be creating a set of struggling and inferior institutions at great cost.

The issue of accreditation is also open to dispute. The University of Botswana accredits its own courses and programmes, as it has not been open to proper external assessment. This may change when a national qualifications framework and an organisation with powers of accreditation are approved by parliament.

Professionals are registered with the Botswana Health Professions Council, and there are allegations of poor standards.

The students also wonder about their registration as doctors if they have not been taught in key areas like surgery, psychiatry and gynaecology because there are too few staff. They also complain that there is a shortage of equipment.

Indeed, medical students have a series of grievances. The new medical school building has not been completed. As a consequence they are being taught off-campus near the Railway Station Mall at Kgogolamoko House, a warehouse.

Even if the new medical school building was finished, it is heavy on staff offices and short on laboratories and proper medical teaching amphitheatres. Thus the university may need to continue to use Kgogolamoko House, a facility the students have rejected.

The cadavers they require for anatomy lessons are not available, as the law that would facilitate the operation of the medical school has not been passed by parliament.

Medical students are also distressed by a decline in qualified staff. Trained doctors with clinical and academic experience are missing in required areas: surgery, psychiatry, obstetrics and gynaecology, radiology and paediatrics (the latter has declined from six staff to two).

The rolling resignations of staff and the refusal of doctors who have applied to work at the university to take up appointments, or the withdrawal of applications, has created a staffing crisis. Some of the staff who left have taken up positions at Namibia’s new medical school.

The problems began to escalate on 1 April 2011. On taking office the new vice-chancellor, Fako, suspended the Restructuring of the Academic Organisational Structure, or RAOS, and rolled back the salaries of senior appointments made under the previous vice-chancellor.

Executive deans and founding deans with five-year performance-based contracts that resulted in their earning almost BWP1 million (US$140,000) a year, or 159% more than the vice-chancellor, were reduced to past ranges established before the restructuring.

But the reduced salaries were unacceptable to the highly qualified medical academics, researchers and clinicians, both citizen and non-citizen, which is why there has been a rash of resignations. The foundation dean, Dr Thomas Massaro, has returned to the University of Virginia in the United States.

The irony in these events is that the pre-RAOS salary structure is not even attractive to citizen doctors. They can earn far more working for the Ministry of Health in hospitals. For many years the University of Botswana had higher salaries than the government, but not now.

Over the years Botswana has trained about 800 medical doctors, but it is claimed that currently only around 280 are working in the country.

There has been a notable lack of coordination and cooperation between universities in Southern Africa regarding medical schools. Significantly, eight new medical schools have opened in the region or are being planned, and they will be competing for staff – and offering significantly higher salaries than the University of Botswana.

Key policy issues

There are other key policy issues.

The University of Botswana has been inflexible in its approach to part-time academic staff. It has lost qualified foreign doctors because it would not accept part-time staff combined with appointments elsewhere. Elsewhere, a doctor who is a high flyer may have multiple appointments in other universities and countries.

The university has also lost critical research funds because of rigidity in contract negotiation – including research support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

There are various a-historical attitudes.

The university began with foreign staff from inside and outside Africa, and with inducement allowances paid by the government or outside agencies. Only a decade ago the institution gave a scientist more than a two-year contract and offered high salaries. The benefits to the country, and to research and teaching, were recognised.

Today young Batswana academics are more militant, and see the new vice-chancellor as a man who has put foreigners in their place, and reduced their salaries. They do commend Fako for communicating with them, as they felt ignored and neglected in the past.

But students say the vision of the University of Botswana – to be “a leading centre of academic excellence” in the region and beyond – is a fantasy. With the way the university is operating now, they said during the strike, this will never be achieved.