Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Implications of Public Private Partnerships in Botswana’s Higher Education System

Since the turn of the century Botswana has seen significant growth in demand for Higher Education and this has resulted in mounting pressure for increased funding of higher education. This is evident in the annual budget allocation for the Ministry of Education and Skills Development (MoESD). The mounting demand for higher education has in the last ten (10) years led to a significant growth in the presence of Private Higher Education institutions in Botswana. In the same period government revenues suffered a heavy blow since the global economic meltdown of 2008 from which the country has undergone sluggish recovery. The dwindling public revenues have led to slashed per-pupil public spending on higher education.

Consequently, public higher education institutions have been coerced into a rather ill-defined private public “partnership” with private higher education institutions. I say coerced and ill-defined because to me it seems as a nation we have succumbed to pressure from international funding bodies in the first world such as; the World Bank, World Trade Organisation and International Monetary Fund that have consistently arm twisted developing countries into adopting private, public partnerships in education. And in the process we have seemingly embraced the neo-liberal policy stance of privatizing public higher education. However, it would appear we have chosen to sugar coat the neo-liberal policy stance on privatization of public higher education to use the more fashionable and alluring term partnership. Whether this is as a consequence of international pressure or internal political expediency this remains murky.

Policy makers have argued such partnerships are a response to low efficiency, poor performance, and economies of scale that have plagued public high education in Botswana. In view of this the one question that begs an answer is whether or not government has taken an informed policy direction to become merely a provider of funding while devolving the running of public higher education to the private institutions? Were this to be the case then under a neo-liberal dispensation there would be numerous benefits accrued such as: improved scholastic performance by learners, higher staff morale, more effective administration of public high education institutions and better integration among learners from diverse ethnic backgrounds.

However, detractors of the neo-liberal devolvement of the state from public education passionately remonstrate that private sector involvement in the running of education disenfranchises learners and parents from direct involvement in education and relegates learners to being merely consumers of education. Having said this, it is critical that government makes it overtly clear the nature of the policy direction that will underpin the private public partnership model in Botswana’s higher education in order to dispel the fears of some quarters.

Another significant consideration in the private public partnership drive will be whether government has leveled the playing field between public and private education providers. That is, will they both be playing by the same set of rules to ensure equity in competition? Remember, government is said to be agitating for increased participation of the private sector in higher education as a means to spur public higher education institutions towards efficiency, better programmes quality, programmes relevance and responsiveness. Another trajectory to this is; given that both public and private higher education enjoy public funding it is important that the public private dynamics in higher education are regulated to maintain equity in competition. For example, will public higher education be afforded some autonomy in order to cut restraining bureaucracy that hampers self-invention in public institutions?  

In Botswana there are “arguably” three contexts that have led to the current private public partnerships. Firstly, increased demand for higher education and dwindling government revenues pushed government towards partnering with private institutions for provision of higher education. Secondly, the skewed graduate competencies against industry needs and the dearth in requisite competencies for economic diversification. It is further argued that this has necessitated a comprehensive national human resource development strategy, as envisioned by the Human Resource Development Council (HRDC). Thirdly, the nation’s vision of being a knowledge hub has precipitated in re-engineering higher education to promote outcome based competencies and industry relevant graduates for both local and global markets. However, what remains unclear in this partnership is what inputs will the private higher education be bringing in. Will they be bringing in managerial and entrepreneurial skills to re-vitalize the governance, relevance and quality of programmes in public higher education institutions? This is a key question that the HRDC needs to answer.

The current model where the partnership is very loose doesn’t not auger well for the envisaged spurring of public institutions towards improved programme quality, improved service quality, relevance and financial prudence. This is so because the partnership is purely lopsided towards private institutions. These will benefit from public institutions’ resources yet playing no meaningful role in reinventing the public institutions organizational culture.  Therefore, for this partnership to be mutually beneficial to all, government needs to structure operational policy to incentivize public institutions to diversify revenue sources. Such diversification could be through: joint research ventures with the private institutions, intellectual property rights, private funding of public institutions, etc. Another critical policy dynamic in the partnership will be for government to regulate involvement of politicians in the provision of private higher education. Politician backed private institutions will not be playing by the same rules as public institutions. In view of this, government needs to create appropriate policy frameworks to provide fit for purpose policy direction for the partnership.

*David Keagakwa is an educationalist. He writes in his personal capacity

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