Monday, September 27, 2021

Could UB become a white elephant in the future?

Maybe Reverend Thuso Tiego overstated the case with his use of “white elephant” but in the not-distant past, student enrolment at the University of Botswana dropped so low that its future survival seemed uncertain.

“I am seeing it in the near future becoming a white elephant without students,” Tiego said on Yarona FM when invited over to explain why he wants to render one more Motswana jobless.

He was making this point within the broader context of rampant corruption by a coterie of self-perpetuating elites who have their fingers in every pie. With particular regard to private-sector tertiary education, his contention was that if one were to investigate private universities, they would discover that these elites have unethical commercial links with them. 

“And what are they doing?” he posed before providing the answer himself. “They channel public funds and all other resources to where they have personal interests.”

Tiego has publicly called on President Mokgweetsi Masisi to step down because he can’t deal with problems that the nation faces. One such problem is corruption.

But could Botswana’s first and largest university ever become a white elephant? The correct answer is uncertain because some three years ago, UB was losing the competition for new students to private universities. The level of financial support that varsities get from the government corresponds to enrolment numbers. When enrolment for some academic programmes at UB dropped, so did the funding and some lecturers were essentially retrenched.

Once upon a time, UB was the most preferred tertiary education institution among secondary school leavers but as then Minister of Tertiary Education, Research, Science and Technology, Dr. Alfred Madigele, stated in parliament, that was no longer the case.

“Students are now shunning UB and prefer private tertiary institutions,” he said.

However, there is another (likelier) explanation. At a time that the BGCSE pass rate is declining, it is harder to get into UB than into private tertiary education institutions which, as profit-making entities, have set entry requirements very low in order to take in as many students as possible. The sponsorship money follows students and the result is that there has been a corresponding drop in the amount of money that the government spends on UB. Naturally, this threatened the job security of UB lecturers and the first to go were those working on contracts. The university shed those employees by not renewing their contracts. The faculties of humanities, social sciences and education were the worst affected in a new order where, at least according to the determination of the Human Resources Development Council, the programmes they offer were, unlike health and engineering, not considered to be as critical to the economy.

There is a third, newer dimension. Covid-19 has badly affected the economy and had it not been for the supplementary budget, the Ministry of Tertiary Education, Research, Science and Technology would have been unable to sponsor all the qualifying students for first year at tertiary education institutions. Nobody knows when the pandemic will end and if coffers ran dry in its second year, there may be no funds to keep UB open in the third if the pandemic has not ended by then.

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