Ambition tempered by reality for new universities

Education plays a pivotal role in empowering young people to transform their lives and become positive, contributing citizens in society. This has taken on an even more significant reality for me as an educator over the past couple of years as I have been privileged to work with a number of higher education providers in countries where the standard of living is very different to that which we enjoy in Australia (my home country).

This is in part due to unstable governance, deeply entrenched, less than scrupulous activity by some in positions of power (read corruption), along with volatile periods of civil unrest, not helped by random natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis and flash floods.

These countries often encounter major social, cultural and economic challenges that need to be addressed, including not least: the preservation of traditional cultural practices by youth who are turning their backs on the ‘old’ ways; high incidences of malaria and infant mortality; increased rates of alcoholism and illicit drug-taking; high levels of domestic violence and gender bias; and increased urban migration of unskilled youth with accompanying rising unemployment levels and crime linked to youth unemployment.

When it comes to education, parents worry about whether they will have access to a school for their children, that there will be teachers to staff the schools and that the teachers will regularly show up to teach their children.

Where there is access to primary and secondary schooling, the quality of the teaching is questionable and resource materials and equipment badly out of date. Even for those who do make it to the end of primary or complete secondary schooling, a large number do not transition to any further education that would help prepare them with skills for the world of work.

There is much that needs to be done to improve school level education. However, just as important perhaps is education at the other end of the spectrum, education that breaks the cycle of unemployment and poverty and helps build the skills base of youth in developing countries and so contributes to the social development of society.

But here again, post-secondary education priorities must be effectively reflected in national policies and regulatory frameworks and be adequately funded. The programmes on offer must be both relevant to youth needs and must meet the country’s requirements.

Setting up a new university

Between 2014 and early 2016, I facilitated various aspects in the establishment of a new university in a developing country. The university is a dual sector provider of both higher education degree programmes and technical and vocational education and training sub-degree programmes.

Its mandate is to provide trade competence for the country, as well as degree programmes that meet international standards. According to the country’s university act, the function of the university is to meet the human resource needs of the country.

Important developments have occurred in the university’s first three years, including the implementation of its first degree awards and the establishment of partnerships with a number of overseas institutions.

However, the challenges the university faces remain huge. They include the crucial need to upgrade courses, staff qualifications, infrastructure and equipment, while at the same time adopt appropriate institutional structures and secure sustainable financial and funding arrangements.

It is acknowledged that the university is still in its infancy in many areas of operation, but its inadequate financial and human resources, coupled with considerable social and political challenges in the country impact on its ability to successfully deliver on its noble vision, mission and objective of promoting scholarship, research, free enquiry, academic excellence and trade competence.

Internal upheaval has also seen adverse consequences. Since mid-2016, there has been the calamitous removal of the inaugural vice-chancellor, the resignation of several deans of schools, unsuccessful recruitment for replacement of key leadership positions and a stalling of progress towards key academic goals. It is a university with ambitious plans, but serious lack of capacity at this point in time to adequately accomplish its mission.

Meeting multiple needs with few resources

The current context is a university that is attempting to do too much, too quickly, with too little in the form of leadership, expertise and government support. One example of this is the overly long list of new degree programmes to be developed without requisite consideration of potential student load, graduate employment prospects, staff capacity and associated delivery costs.

An essential first step is for the university to consolidate its offerings to ensure it prepares highly sought-after employees who will have reliable societal impact.

Decisions need to be taken about: streamlining the number and type of programmes offered, ensuring what is offered meets the most urgent human resource needs, making available appropriate pathways for students to progress from certificate to degree level, and guaranteeing programmes demonstrate compliance with the national qualifications framework. Programmes must meet the needs of learners, employers, the professions and society.

The scenario described above is replicated in several developing countries. It is a hard slog to achieve real and sustainable improvement in some countries given the social, political, cultural and economic context.

However, it is important that the country’s government perseveres and taps into the high level of encouragement from external and internal stakeholders who are committed to supporting the government as it endeavours to meet the human resource needs of the country and to improve access to higher education for its young people.

Dr Nita Temmerman is a former university pro vice-chancellor (academic) and executive dean of the faculty of education at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia. She is currently chair of two higher education academic boards in Australia, visiting professor to Ho Chi Minh City Open University and Solomon Islands National University, as well as invited specialist with the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications, invited external reviewer with the Oman Academic Accreditation Authority, registered expert at the Australian Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, and a published author.