Friday, January 15, 2021

School of Medicine ÔÇô Inside how govt and UB blundered into a mess

Although it is heavily concentrated at the University of Botswana, blameworthiness for the mess at the School of Medicine (SoM) extends right into the Government Enclave, the government district at the Main Mall in Gaborone that houses the headquarters of virtually all ministries and departments.

Extrapolating from what a source with deep knowledge of the SoM project says there are at least two major stumbling blocks. The first is the inability of a body known as the High-Ranking Committee (HRC) made up of permanent secretaries from as many ministries and the Vice Chancellor and, the decision by the latter to suspend the University of Botswana’s Review of Academic Structure (ROAS). It seems odd that at a time when UB’s SoM is going through severe labour pains, the HRC, which is supposed to midwife the delivery of SoM, is absent from the delivery room but that is exactly what is happening. The HRC was established by a presidential directive under President Festus Mogae.

The HRC is made up of permanent secretaries from the ministry of education and skills development (MoESD) as chairperson, counterparts from the ministries of health and finance and development planning as well as the VC. The local government PS ceased to be a member of this committee when clinics were transferred to the Ministry of Health. Chaired by the MoESD PS, the HRC was formed to superintend the entire process of establishing SoM and act as a rapid-response operation in the event any problems arose. SoM’s development framework describes the chairperson of the HRC as the “project owner.”

“If there was any problem, the HRC would elevate it to cabinet and it would be resolved immediately,” says the source.

It has now emerged that the HRC has been in hibernation and that, as SoM, it has not made any intervention. The explanation from MoESD’s spokesperson, Oarabile Phefo, is that there was no need for the Committee to make any intervention because the matter had been taken up by the education minister, Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, herself. While confirming that the Committee is still active and is still being chaired by his PS, Phefo admitted though that “its meetings have not been as frequent as expected.” Whilst he says it has met, he was unable to say when the Committee held its last meeting. The source’s version is that “the HRC hasn’t been meeting.” At this stage, SoM is still a project and the Committee was to be disbanded only when the project was complete and duly handed over to UB.

Next to the HRC abdicating its oversight role is the suspension of ROAS by the VC which is said to have rubbed SoM staff the wrong way and resulted in some resigning in protest. During the planning stage, the one aspect that was consistently identified as high-risk was the resignation of SoM staff. For that reason, retention of staff was viewed as a substantial priority for the school.

However, that nightmare became reality, the source suggests, when ROAS was suspended. In 2008, UB undertook a comprehensive review of its organisational structure that became effective in April last year. Around that time, UB was changing guard as then Vice Chancellor, Professor Bojosi Otlhogile made way for Professor Thabo Fako. Suspension of ROAS is said to have thrown the SoM dean, who was to take over as new dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, in a weird space as he did not know how much power was assigned to his authority. This confusion is said to have adversely affected the recruitment of new staff. Embittered, SoM’s founding dean quit and was soon followed by more disgruntled staff. Besides disgruntlement, SoM staff panicked because they felt that the suspension of ROAS boded ill for their future with UB when they were told by the new VC that the new structure and their salaries were not legitimate.

Written questions were submitted to UB’s Director of Public Affairs, Reetsang Mhitshane, but she did not answer two of them: one on how long ROAS will stay suspended and the other on what Fako’s views were on it for him to suspend it upon taking over as VC. ROAS never generated a firm consensus and UB sources say Fako was among those who looked upon it with strong disfavour.

When he came into office, Fako would brook no compromise with the status quo and one of the first changes he made was to suspend the new structure. As VC, he has the last word of consequence. There is a perception that Fako’s keenness to roll back the clock is a reflection of the fact that his attitude on ROAS has not evolved.

Sunday Standard understands that when a programme starts, teaching staff is normally recruited 12 months in advance for subsequent years. The source suggests that with the confusion that followed the suspension of ROAS, staff was not recruited in time and that, to an extent, compounded the current staff shortage. Mhitshane gives a different account.

“It is not correct that staff members of the School of Medicine are recruited 12 months prior. The School had in 2011 sent out an open advert calling for applicants for the various biomedical and clinical academic vacant positions. The advert will remain open until all vacancies are filled and applications are processed through the approved University structures as they are received,” she says.

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