Wake-up call for the higher education sector

A distinguished academic has advised Namibia to differentiate higher education if it is to transform into a knowledge-based economy. He called for strengthening further education and training to improve access to a more diverse system that will better meet the needs of the developing Southern African country.

Professor Rolf Stumpf made the recommendation during a public lecture, “Higher Education Landscape in Namibia with Particular Reference to Increasing Access while Improving Quality and Increasing Institutional Diversity”, in the Namibian capital Windhoek last month. The lecture was hosted by the National Council for Higher Education, or NCHE.

Stumpf – a former vice-chancellor in South Africa, ex-president of the Human Sciences Research Council and currently a top consultant – premised the lecture on institutional diversification to increase higher education access and improve quality, efficiency and effectiveness.

The context was a review of Namibia’s higher education system against the goals and objectives of the country’s development blueprint, Vision 2030.

Diversification refers to the variety of entities in a higher education system at any given time, while differentiation refers to the process by which diversity is achieved. There is growing recognition of the need to strengthen further education and training in Africa, as a way to diversify post-school systems and enhance access.

Advocates of institutional diversification argue that a diversified system provides more differentiated access to higher education and is better suited to meeting the diverse needs of students in developing countries.

Stumpf touched on the 2011 review of Namibia’s higher education system, which used a framework that identified eight core conditions for higher education to contribute to sustainable development and a knowledge economy.

Higher education participation

With respect to tertiary education participation, it emerged that the gross enrolment ratio for Namibia – the proportion of 20-24 year olds in higher education – was 10.5% in 2011.

Stumpf said that if Namibia set a gross enrolment target of 48% by 2030, it would require 10% growth of enrolment per annum for nearly 20 years, or 10,000 new students in the system per year.

The sustainability of such growth rates given Namibia’s present expenditure of 0.6% of gross domestic product on higher education was “questionable”. The government would have to spend more on higher education.

With respect to academic programme types, the review showed that nearly 49% of students were enrolled in vocational programmes, 36% in professional programmes and about 16% in general programmes – not a bad distribution.

“My feeling is that general enrolments could be higher and vocational and professional enrolments are marginally low,” he said.

He said the University of Namibia, or UNAM, had a large percentage of enrolments in what would typically be called vocational programmes. This was probably linked to the institution’s high numbers of enrolments in certificate and diploma programmes.

While UNAM was a relatively young university, for a PhD-granting institution that picture looked “a little bit out of the norm”.

Turning to the Polytechnic of Namibia, or PoN, the survey revealed that about 54% of students were enrolled in vocational courses, 42% in professional programmes and 4% in general programmes – with the latter proportion questionable “given the emphasis on vocational preparatory education”.

Turning to knowledge fields, data from the survey revealed that science, engineering and technology – SET – education accounted for 25.5% of enrolment, business and economic sciences 49%, education 15% and humanities about 11%.

That distribution, Stumpf said, was not uncommon in many developing countries, many of which were struggling to increase enrolment in SET fields. The survey showed that UNAM had a higher SET enrolment than the polytechnic.

On mode of delivery, the survey showed that 75% of students were in contact learning and 25% in distance education.

Regarding decentralisation, the survey revealed that four out of every five tertiary students studied in Windhoek. “This seems to be a major challenge for Namibia, to take a greater level of higher education into the various regions in the country,” said Stumpf.

Stumpf said there was a need to move much more strongly into masters and doctoral degrees. Namibia needed to “do some real work” in relation to producing the postgraduates required by a knowledge economy as visualised by Vision 2030.

Stumpf said universities with high proportions of academic staff with postgraduate qualifications, especially PhDs, tended to be ranked highly.

“There is no way you can build sustainable, viable PhD programmes and masters programmes without having qualified staff to do that,” he warned, adding that Namibia needed to appoint more “homegrown” academic staff.

Namibia’s higher education should be characterised by equitably funded, expanded access to higher education. Stumpf called for greater institutional differentiation to achieve this, and curtailing possible ‘mission drift’ of different institutional types.

“You need strengthened distance education, non-urban provision of higher education, a strengthened academic core in terms of increased PhD and research outputs and a greater but planned policy-supported role for the private sector,” he summed up.

Four options

Stumpf presented four options that Namibia could consider to strengthen higher education.

The first option, which he called ‘the easy way out’, would entail UNAM paying particular attention to enrolling more students in the humanities and advancing postgraduate research at masters and PhD degree levels.

UNAM would then begin to phase out some certificate and diploma programmes. The polytechnic would enrol more certificate and diploma students and emphasise more SET enrolments.

The two institutions would need to decentralise their activities. “They do have centres in the regions but they are not emphasising provision of higher education strongly enough there.”

The second option – ‘between a rock and a hard place’ – would involve partial re-establishment of colleges of education for primary teacher training. NCHE would develop a quality assurance support system for the colleges. “Secondary teacher education training can be left at UNAM because subject knowledge is quite crucial at that level.”

This option would also involve expanding the Namibia College of Open Learning, or NAMCOL’s, open and distance learning mandate considerably to allow it to offer lower-level higher education qualifications, certificates and diplomas.

The third ‘all eggs in one basket’ option would entail consolidating all public open distance learning into one institution like NAMCOL.

The last option – ‘many eggs in many baskets' – combined the best elements of all the other options. It would involve establishing two university colleges outside Windhoek.

He said contrary to widespread misconception, a university college is not a university but a teaching institution with no research mandate, offering certificates, diplomas and first degree studies in some areas. Research shows that setting up university colleges can provide a powerful developmental stimulus.

Stumpf said after careful analysis, his view was that only option four would increase access to higher education in Namibia. It would also allow for a wide variety of different kinds of institutions that would meet the diverse student needs of the population.

He concluded that Namibia was at an exciting point in its history. The country had an opportunity to get the strengthening of higher education right – and warned that opportunity does not knock twice.

“Diversification is no longer a choice for the Namibian higher education system. You have to go that route.”

Statistical support

Victor Kaulinge, an adviser with the National Planning Commission, agreed with Stumpf that diversification was the best option for Namibian higher education, and provided statistics on education enrolment to support it.

In 2013, there were more than 200,000 lower primary school pupils, 163,000 in upper primary and 40,000 in secondary education. Drop-out rates among grade 10 learners was 32% and in grade 12 the rate was 10% with a repetition rate of 20%.

“This tells us that within our education system there is need to create opportunities for learners who are not able to proceed.”