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When I sit down to ask the Vice chancellor of BIUST what the institution has so far achieved towards becoming a key player in the country’s overall economy, my host chooses without any second thoughts to take me by the hand along what in the end manifests as the overarching strategy of the university.
From the beginning to the end, it becomes apparent that the current leadership at BIUST is light years ahead of the rest of the nation when it comes to internalizing what direction the economy should be going.
While diamonds and other natural resources have taken us this far, the next phase of development will be carved on the basses of our investment in science, innovation, technology and engineering.
That, according to BIUST leadership is the future that we cannot escape as a country.
Professor Otlogetswe Totolo sings lyrical about the origins of the university, why it was built in Palapye and why going forward science, innovation and technology will be the new areas of economic growth for the country.
Totolo was the first Motswana to be appointed Vice Chancellor of BIUST, an ambitious project that was the brainchild of then state president Festus Mogae, who even in retirement has incidentally retained his position as Chancellor.
Elated as he is, Totolo is under no illusion about the magnitude of the task ahead.
His biggest constraint, he says is that BIUST came a time when the economy of the country was starting to slow down.
And because the university is treated like any Government department, it has to compete for government subvention with other equally or more pressing national interests.
He points as a matter of that BIUST was created out of necessity.
By him it was a strategic decision meant to cut high costs of sending Batswana students overseas to study such pertinent courses like science and engineering.
The idea was that with a university inside the country, more students would be trained to meet the needs of the economy. And already it’s beginning to show. BIUST has close to 2000 students in its various science related courses.
Equally deliberate was a decision to locate the university at Palapye - by all accounts a central location for the country.
When the university is fully developed, Totolo wants Palapye to be internationally known as a university town.
And already there is evidence that Palapye is fast transforming from being a sleepy rural village it was before the university was built to being a vibrant town.
And by him, the unmistakable and booming infrastructure developments that are now fast changing the Palapye landscape can very easily be traced to the decision to place Buist in the area.
“As BUIST we are right there in the Palapye mix, scanning the landscape. We have a Vision. We dream big. We want to be a world class university of science and technology as well as engineering,” says Prof Totolo.
From the beginning, quality and close relationship with industry were key factors to be considered when formulating both the syllabus and course work.
He draws from such countries like Malaysia, South Korea and Singapore who used their human resources, with science at the apex to drive and develop economies that within a generation were among the biggest and strongest in the world.
He says these countries were able to create in their economies technology giants like Samsung and Hyundai because there was a deliberate policy to increase investments in science and technology.
That happened because there were significant increases in money invested through Research and Development.
As a pre-emptive strike, Prof Totolo is blunt enough to state that Botswana should increase investments in research and technology as proportion of GDP.
That he says is correct for the country as is the case for individual companies.
Currently the country only invests 0.43 percent of GDP in Research and Development.
Even by African standards that is too low to make desirable impacts.
South Africa, considered a premier performer by African standards invests 0.76 percent.
That too pales in comparison to economic giants of South East Asia that invest between 4 and 5 percent of their GDP in Research and Development related initiatives.
“This [R&D investments] is not rocket science. It can be done. But it cannot come by chance. There has to be clear policy on it. Government argues with me on the matter. But at least we agree that it is the way to go if we are to truly transform the nation and country.”
To achieve its vision, BIUST has deliberately chosen to emphasise practical part of pedagogy as opposed to theory.
“The idea is that when students leave the university, they are not going to look for jobs but rather look for problems to solve. That is a big difference,” says Totolo.
To achieve that BIUST has opted to engage industry and carve a close relationship with such established industrial power houses like Debswana, Morupule, BTC and other engineering related blue chips.
This relationship with the industry has allowed BIUST to get lengthy internship periods for their students to learn practical work experience.
Allowing students to interact with industry nourishes in them a creative and intuitive zeal of producing something in the end.
It also allows them to appreciate the real life problems faced by their people and more crucially to come up with initiatives to solve those problems beyond the academic halls.
The time that students spend in the industry is equivalent to three credit courses.
This means that no BIUST student would get a qualification unless they spend such long time attached to an industry.
Research is yet another area that the university emphasises.
Through research students are expected to be globally competitive.
This is achieved by imbuing students with instincts to venture into research already that finally have practical and demonstrable relevance and impacts on the citizens and on the economy.
“And here we have taken a decision to start where we are before we go out. Our engineering students are already constructing bridges across Lotsane River. They are doing water reticulation for Dikabeya village. These projects were chosen because as we live in this area we have seen what challenges the people in the area are facing,” says Professor Totolo.
Realising the growing influence that BIUST is having in the area, Government has instructed Professor Totolo to invest time and resources in ensuring that primary schools in and around Palapye achieve school results that are above national average in a space of time set.
“It is an assignment that we take seriously as BIUST. This is because it part of our vision that research should not just end in the books and laboratories. Research should ultimately become projects that are life changing. Our view is that research is only important if it enhances people’s lives. In that regard we encourage both students and academia to work closely with community to understand people’s needs.”
Professor Totolo says Buist has already reached beyond the borders of the country for partnerships with other reputable universities and institutions.
These include aviation related Memorandum of Understanding with the Ethiopian aeroplane manufacturing industry.
Such industry relationships, he says will along the line help in bringing to our shores industries that produces products that currently the country purchases at high costs.