Use universities to spur Botswana’s growth agenda – Report

Botswana’s development towards becoming a high-income and industrialised economy by 2036 will need to be harnessed with high-quality research and development, technology and innovation, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

In its report, Botswana Science, Technology and Innovation Policy Review, UNCTAD noted that while Botswana in the past two decades has improved its science, technology and innovation (STI) footprint, the progress is too slow and needs to be accelerated.

For further advancement of STI in Botswana, the report says tertiary education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields is critical for research and for developing local innovations as well as for mastering technologies developed elsewhere.

“Higher education in those areas forms the basis for technological upgrading and innovation by firms, universities and research institutes,” stated the report, which was prepared by a team in UNCTAD’s Division on Technology and Logistics, and released recently.

Low postgraduate enrolments

However, although Botswana has invested heavily in education, university education is dominated by bachelor degree programmes, and postgraduate enrolments are lacking.

The Human Resource Development Council (HRDC), a public utility that advises the government on human capacity-building, indicated that, in 2021, about 92% of all students who were studying for degrees and postgraduate diplomas in Botswana were in the bachelor degree category.

A total of 35,666 students were in the bachelor programmes, 2,705 in masters, 212 in postgraduate diploma courses and 217 were enrolled at PhD level, according to the HRDC’s report that was released in November 2022.

STI development an urgent priority

This is why the latest UNCTAD report highlights the urgency for Botswana’s higher education institutions to produce a large cohort of people with cutting-edge technical skills for research and development, especially at the masters and PhD levels.

So far, Botswana’s industrial, and research and development sectors have a short supply of highly trained personnel because universities are not enrolling many students in STEM fields.

The current proportion of graduates in tertiary education in STEM disciplines in Botswana is low, as it stands at less than 18.5% of the total student enrolment, according to the 2022 Global Innovation Index.

By implication, the pool of graduates required to replace retiring research and development personnel is limited and, according to labour experts at UNCTAD, it is currently unclear why there is such low interest in pursuing STEM-related degrees and diplomas.

To create interest in STEM studies, the report urged Botswana’s Department of Research, Science and Technology to start conducting science weeks as a means of raising awareness of science-based occupations.

But, as the report noted, while such initiatives might temporarily boost STEM enrolment rates, there are indicators that many students struggle to complete STEM-based degrees, as they are ill-prepared at lower school levels.

In this regard, for Botswana to succeed in its development agenda, it will need to confront the challenges of a brain drain in technical fields and ageing researchers, according to UNCTAD.

“Research managers must also be replaced with graduates with research experience,” noted the writers’ team which had Professor John Mugabe of the University of Pretoria, Professor Erika Kraemer-Mbula of the University of Johannesburg, both in South Africa, and Gape Kaboyakgosi, a researcher in Botswana, as consultants of the review process.

In addition to technical skills, UNCTAD stressed the need for soft skills for effective communication, creativity, working in teams and problem-solving actions, adding that these should be integrated into Botswana’s development agenda through tertiary education and training.

Nonetheless, Botswana’s mission to achieve a knowledge-driven economy would be enhanced if the country increased expenditure on research and development which currently stands at 0.5% of the gross domestic product.

In this regard, Botswana’s expenditure on research and development is low by international standards, according to UNCTAD, as well as lower than the national target of 2%.

Some areas of progress

Even then, although technical publications output, research talent and patent registration in global standards are in short supply in Botswana, UNCTAD highlighted that the country has some good technical skills, institutions and good policies.

In the past two decades, Botswana has been giving increasing attention to STI by establishing the Department of Research, Science and Technology to oversee STI initiatives, as well as supporting commercialisation of innovation through start-ups and increasing support to research and innovation in universities and other tertiary institutions.

Levels of research intensity appear to have increased substantially at the University of Botswana and Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST), the two universities in the country that last month were among the 112 African universities that were ranked by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2024 by Subject.

In this regard, the University of Botswana was placed in the 501-600 band in the clinical and health category, while the two universities were in the 1,001+ band in physical sciences.

Amid efforts to improve on the innovation front, the University of Botswana has strong links with the Botswana Digital & Innovation Hub, a public-supported science and technology park that has opened industrial partnerships and provides business development services. Albeit on a smaller scale, BIUST has opened a technology transfer and science park to assist students and lecturers in engaging in incubation activities as well as establishing their start-ups.

According to UNCTAD, several universities in Botswana are focusing on digitalisation under the SmartBots strategy, a digital project that is geared towards building a knowledge-based economy.

There are indicators that Botswana has improved its research output in terms of scientific publications in the past decade. Datasets from the Scimago database, an online portal that collates journal publications and other country scientific indicators contained in Scopus and Elsevier databases, Botswana’s publications rose from 445 in 2013 to 1,006 in 2022.

Commenting on the issue, the report writers noted that Botswana’s per capita publications on health and well-being are among the highest in Africa, while the number of research and development personnel stands at 570 per million inhabitants, which is higher than in most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Even so, commercialisation of research is limited, while industrial partnerships with higher education are limited to the University of Botswana and BIUST.

Diversification of higher education

In essence, what is emerging is that, with its political stability, suitable policy actions and existing STI opportunities, Botswana could spur its development agenda by using universities to produce a workforce that would harness new technologies that would foster economic growth.

UNCTAD has advised Botswana to move beyond having good policies and start using universities to train and upgrade innovators with high digital skills across the industry that would harness various technologies for economic transformation.

Taking into account that Botswana’s university enrolment in agriculture, fisheries, forestry and veterinary sciences stands at only 2% of the total number of students, UNCTAD urged Botswana to encourage more students to study those sciences, as, in 2021, only 151 graduates were in those fields as compared to 4,117 in business administration and 2,002 in education.

According to UNCTAD, diversification in university education is necessary as this would enable a varied highly trained workforce to serve in different sectors of the economy.

As for Botswana, what UNCTAD found in its STIP Review is that, whereas political stability and good policies count in laying the foundation for economic take-off, quality university education, especially in STEM disciplines, will be a critical factor for success.