Saturday, May 21, 2022

HRDC bosses lament today’s ‘semi-military kind of culture’

Senior Human Resources Development Council officials have made startling allegations about political interference they have to contend with in today’s “semi-military kind of culture.” This allegation was made to researchers from a South African think tank called the Centre for Higher Education Transformation (CHET) at a time (April 2012) that HRDC was still called the Botswana Tertiary Education Council (BTEC) and reproduced in a report that studies the Council’s model.

“In the past, you could get away with a lot of bureaucratic technical decisions with very little interference or blockage from the political. But with a semi-military kind of culture now, it is very difficult. The space has closed. … And they tell you: don’t ask the Minister to give you a written instruction; if you ask for that you should be prepared to bear the consequences. So that has intimidated a lot of people. But overall I think we still hope that the democracy will remain,” says an unnamed source in a section of the report headlined “Political Interference.”

However, some of what appears under this section hardly qualifies as political interference. The source went on to state that one of the most sensitive aspect of their work is the registering of tertiary education institutions. On “more than one occasion” managers of institutions that were “not found worthy of registration because they did not meet some of the fundamental requirements of quality” have “rushed” to the Office of the President and the Minister of Education and Skills Development.

“… and of course the Minister came back to us to say: can you do something to help these people? And, of course, we answered back to say: we can’t do that for ABCD reasons. The Minister had no other way of forcing us, so we stood by that. … So we have been very fair in making sure that we do not get political influence. Luckily neither the Minister nor the President has tried to force us to do something else because our feeling is that the law protects us from that kind of interference,” the source says.

What was definitely political interference is what President Ian Khama is said to have done with regard to effort by the Human Resource Development Council (HRDC) to accredit the programmes of public tertiary education institutions (TEIs).

In talking generally about politicians’ resentment of the autonomy accorded bodies like HRDC, one respondent recounted a meeting with Khama at which he made a suggestion that the president shot down.

“The general atmosphere right now is that bodies like [the BTEC] are too autonomous to the liking of the present government. They claim [these bodies] overpay themselves, and that they say a lot of things that government doesn’t find particularly acceptable, when we begin to challenge certain things. Like when we refuse to register someone, someone else may think:

these people are too powerful; they shouldn’t be doing this; we should be able to instruct them. I remember, at one point, I raised the issue of the fact that the present law does not allow us to accredit the programmes of public institutions and that the proposal is to change that law. This was at the briefing of the President and he said: no, I don’t think so; we are not going to accept that. Definitely they are not amused by the fact that these bodies are relatively autonomous,” the respondent is quoted as saying.

The report doesn’t attribute statements to individuals ÔÇô it only refers to “respondents” who in the footnotes are identified as Felix Rex O’mara (Director: Quality Assurance and Regulation); Margaret Baiketsi (Acting Director: Policy and Planning); Masego Mokubung (Director: Knowledge Management); Morake Matlhaga (Head: Financial Planning, Directorate of Institutional Funding); Patrick Molutsi (Executive Secretary); and Theophilus Mooko (Deputy Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Education and Skills Development).

These people held the stated positions at the time they were interviewed by CHET researchers in April 2012. The interviews, which were recorded and later transcribed, were conducted with senior leadership and staff and Mooko. The draft case study report was developed during 2013 and sent to the Council’s executive secretary and key resource people for feedback and comment in October/November of that year. The case reports were finalised during March 2014.

Respondents attributed the Council’s lack of autonomy to its dependence on government for funding – 85ÔÇô90 percent of it comes from the government.

Khama would have had a change of mind because in the new Human Resource Development Council Act which replaced the Tertiary Education Act, programmes offered by public TEIs will have to be accredited by the HRDC. However, his initial refusal would have adversely affected the schedule to correct this anomaly, prescribed in the latter Act, that required the accreditation of programmes offered by private TEIs and not public ones.

Established in 1999, HRDC (BTEC at the time) is responsible for “the promotion and coordination of tertiary education and for the determination and maintenance of standards of teaching, examination and research in tertiary institutions.” It would appear that resistance to it comes not just from politicians but one very important public TEI as well. The report says that in the past, vestiges of the old system have persisted because at times the University of Botswana would bypass the Council and go straight to the Ministry of Education and Skills Development:

“To that extent, there is a creative tension of some sort. You know, universities around the world have had a sceptical attitude towards these kinds of councils because they are seen as challenging university autonomy, and coming in between. And, of course, [the BTEC] has been more technical than the Ministry itself. … So we were obviously coming in as a spoiler between the University and the Ministry and you needed a very strong Minister who could always refer them back [to the BTEC],” a respondent says.

Such resistance notwithstanding, the Council appears to be overly lenient in some instances. A respondent is quoted as saying: “Some institutions didn’t really meet [the criteria for registration or accreditation] completely, but then we weighed those up and asked: how critical [is it]?

For example, if someone doesn’t have adequate physical space, but they have the teachers, we will say: this is a developmental process. Or a fully-fledged library where instead they were using an e-library we would say: we give you a period to develop to improve your titles because this is critical. Or someone did not have enough toilets, we would be reasonable to say: try to build them, but we nevertheless register you. The media has said that we are compromising although we felt that if we were not reasonable, then a lot of institutions ÔÇô particularly the private ones ÔÇô would not have been registered because they were not hundred percent in meeting the requirements.”

The Academic Planning and Development Committee can recommend that the institution be given a letter of interim authority which allows the institution to operate for a period of five years before it is properly registered.

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