Why higher education’s growth trajectory has stalled

For the past decade Botswana has been on a trajectory to establish a vibrant tertiary education sector, investing knowledge, human resources and local and overseas funding to build a strong system. But recent events have created tensions, imposed constraints and curtailed development.

The Tertiary Education Council, or TEC, has consistently pushed for the expansion of higher education in Botswana. It began in 2003, under the leadership of its founding Executive Secretary Professor Patrick Molutsi, who will soon retire.

That year the council established a task force to create Botswana’s second public university. Although the task force’s report was received in 2004, the Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST) only opened in 2012. Various economic, political and administrative constraints hampered its timely development.

At the TEC, considerable time and effort have gone into establishing guidelines, policies, funding models, websites, strategic plans and regulations and systems for registering public and private institutions, including inspection and assessments, standards for accreditation and quality control.

The overall goal is to increase the tertiary education gross enrolment ratio from 11.4% in 2007-08 to at least 17% by 2016 – the 50th anniversary of independence – and to 25% by 2026.

The tertiary education policy Towards a Knowledge Society was passed by parliament in April 2008. By then the TEC had registered 27 tertiary education institutions and, that year, the council began to support research on higher education.

In 2009, cabinet approved a National Human Resources Development Strategy and created an Advisory Council. A new model for funding was also approved. By 2009, 32 institutions were registered.

The first tertiary education fair was held in 2010, and these have now become annual events that attract institutions in Botswana and others from around the world. A Tertiary Education Management information Systems and Needs Analysis was developed in 2011, and by the end of that year there were 37 registered tertiary institutions.

At the same time the Ministry of Education and Skills Development worked to ensure that qualified Batswana who wished to pursue courses not available locally had the opportunity to study overseas.

Problems that are holding higher education back

But the economic recession caused Botswana to reverse this policy. The small-state economy, heavily dependent on one commodity – diamonds – suffered as the demand for diamonds declined. The market for Botswana’s meat has also been eroded.

Batswana studying in South Africa or overseas were told to return, as their stipends could not be continued. An exception has been made for top achievers in national school-leaving examinations, who will still be sponsored to study abroad, but their numbers are small compared with past levels of support for studies outside Botswana.

The rise of state surveillance has created a situation where tertiary students and staff fear that fellow students or colleagues may be informers for the state’s intelligence services in order to earn extra money. This restricts free discussion and inquiry.

An increase in recorded extra-judicial killings and the pardoning of state agents who have been found guilty of murder have fuelled anxieties, along with a sharp rise in imprisonment, deportation of foreigners and numbers being declared Prohibited Immigrants.

The global financial meltdown, and the running down of Botswana’s foreign reserves – once strong enough to support the annual budget for a dozen years – have caused delays in the construction of tertiary facilities, and a severe decline in resources available to support higher education.

Even pet projects like the National Internship Programme (NIP) face cutbacks and a drastic reduction in the monthly allowance of the few thousand participants. The demand for placements through NIP is far greater than the supply of opportunities for unemployed graduates. There are at least 4,000 jobless graduates in the ICT field alone. By reducing the allowances it was hoped to expand NIP and extend it more to the private and NGO sectors.

Other much publicised projects like the University of Botswana academic hospital are experiencing delays, and it is alleged they will have to be mothballed because of a lack of human and financial resources available, even after the structure is completed.

Meanwhile, the university’s new medical school has faced a series of problems related to staffing, student intakes, and not having a law to allow students to use human cadavers in anatomy classes.

But the star project in public higher education is the creation of BIUST, at Palapye in north-east Botswana, which is years behind schedule. There have been allegations of corruption regarding the huge wall surrounding the campus.

Stage one is now finished, but the handover to BIUST by the contractors has not taken place. In October, former president Festus Mogae was inaugurated as the first BIUST chancellor by current President Seretse Khama Ian Khama.

The university’s opening at Oodi, temporarily using facilities of the Botswana College of Arts and Technology, occurred in August 2012. More than 2,500 candidates applied for admission, and 300 were offered places. If the new campus had been completed, many more could have been accepted.

The move to Palapye is expected in June 2013. But construction of stage two of the university facilities required has not yet begun. Delays have been caused by a number of factors, including a freeze on financing BIUST that was only lifted in October 2011.

Efforts since 2004 to mobilise public-private partnerships for BIUST have not borne fruit. But a recent forum held in Palapye attracted over 300 interested business people; perhaps now the climate is right.

BIUST faces a serious space problem without stage two completed. Currently there are only dormitory rooms with 270 beds. Only 70 staff houses are finished, but there are already 120 staff and by mid-2013, BIUST is expected to have over 200 staff.

Palapye is not a large enough town to supply rental buildings to meet BIUST’s accelerating student and staff housing demands. Botswana’s second university needs to be a community on its own with a variety of facilities and housing on a new purpose-built campus.

In addition, BIUST has for years mounted an aggressive staff development programme to train scientists and engineers in universities around the world, with at least 70 fellows already studying for masters and doctorates. In 2012, 20 more Batswana who had masters were taken on by BIUST and sponsored for doctoral studies.

The private sector

The private tertiary sector in Botswana had its beginnings 15 years ago, in an enterprise organised by NIIT in India and now called Botho College. It has a new, modern campus in Gaborone and campuses in Maun and Francistown.

Botho College was the first, still surviving institution to register with the TEC in June 2006, along with BA ISAGO University College and the Gaborone Institute of Professional Studies. The latter now has seven campuses, having grown from a small, private vocational training institution that started in 1991.

Malaysia-based Limkokwing University of Creative Technology registered in 2006 as the fourth private institution, and it has become the major player since opening in 2007. That year, ABM University College became the fifth private institution, and there are now at least 12.

Vision versus reality

The peak in tertiary enrolments for private and public institutions combined was in 2008-09, when there were 47,889 students altogether. Of these 54.6% (26,130) were in public institutions, including 15,036 at the University of Botswana (58% of the public enrolment), with others in colleges of education, health science, agriculture and others, and the Botswana College of Distance and Open Learning.

Since 2009, public institutions have experienced a small decline in enrolment of a few thousand students, while private institutions declined by 38% to 13,345 students in 2010-11.

Last year, of 36,859 students, 35% were in private and 65% in public institutions.

The plan is for private institutions to be expanded, and to attract more foreign universities like Limkokwing, which has students from a dozen other African nations. The vision is for Botswana to become a centre of excellence in tertiary education and to attract foreign students. An education hub has been created to market Botswana as a destination for higher education.

The ministry has a ‘Back to School’ initiative whose objective is for school teachers who are under-qualified to return for further study. It has resulted in a massive input of teachers into in-service higher education programmes.

The initiative may also attract private operators from elsewhere, with interest expressed by several institutions, including Monash University (Australia and South Africa). Mancosa from South Africa is already established and is offering three bachelor degree courses and an MBA.

The decline in resources to support Batswana to study either locally or abroad has had a serious impact on tertiary education expansion goals.

At a time of shrinking resources, it would have been fair to expect steps to be taken to improve the recovery of student loans from the more than 120,000 Batswana who over the past 18 years have had their higher education paid but have not yet started repaying the loans.

A consultancy to recover loans has been delayed for three years. The most recent round of bidding closed last month. With billions of pula to be recovered, a significant profit can be expected for the agency that does the work – but the legal framework for loan recovery still does not exist.

Other challenges for the tertiary sector include sustaining student numbers and funding allocations to a level that will ensure private institutions do not fold, and avoiding possible overlapping functions between the University of Botswana and the new BIUST.

The major multidisciplinary research and teaching centre outside Maun, the Okavango Research Centre, continues to go from strength to strength and sustain its reputation as a world-class research institute. In future, other such centres are required in Botswana.

Small, scattered public tertiary institutions need to be amalgamated into multi-campus institutions, with the ones that are no longer viable closed. This applies to the colleges of education (six), the institutes of health sciences (at least six) and nine tertiary technical education institutions. So far only the Lobatse College of Education has been closed.

The TEC and the Botswana Training Authority are in the process of merging. There is much work to be done by the new Botswana Human Resources Development Advisory Council, but it is too early to know how it will operate – or how it will go about tackling the many problems facing the country’s post-school sector.