Thursday, October 28, 2021

The government should consider a cutback in financing programs with poor job prospects

The past few weeks the nation witnessed a mini student up-rise at some of the country’s national universities ÔÇô two private and one public university. The student’s protests which attracted riot police, as always, were for different reasons ranging from lack of crediting living allowance to “unaccredited courses”. In this commentary we intend to focus much on the latter and even touch base on the so called “accredited” study programs whose job prospects are as slow as the rate of the growth of the economy of this country. Apart from the University of Botswana, across the new Lobatse road and close to our head office here in Commercepark, some students of Botho University in Kgale area also faced the wrath of the riot Police. The students were challenging the university’s guts to offer them what they perceive to be “unaccredited” programs – a fair demand from students to be awarded quality education.

As to how they ended up in such programs only Botho University or the Botswana Qualifications Authority (BQA) can explain better. What we know for sure though, is that lately, institutions such as Botho University and other semi-private universities and colleges actively recruit and compete for as many students as they can get. Certainly because their financial future is dependent on the revenue stream supported by tuition fees of these students. The general observation is that of late, if Batswana students cannot find exactly what they want ÔÇô say, a bachelor’s program with no math, science or language requirement ÔÇô all they have to do is look around to find an institution that provides it regardless of the academic merit involved or what the labour market currently requires. Available statistics show that combined, both UB and these semi private universities over the years produced more graduates in certain disciplines than the economy is able to absorb or need them. It is also clear that over the past decades, our overall education policy neglected other areas, most notably the engineering and technical disciplines, including but not limited to medicine and its related specialized disciplines. Despite our country being blessed with mineral resources, our education system has over the years failed to produce adequate mining engineers. If anyone need evidence let them visit our mines which are still operational. Even the skeletal staff that was left behind at the closure of BCL mine in Selibe Phikwe is made up mostly of foreign engineers.

That aside, one also ought to point out that some thirty years ago, it might have made sense to focus on sending increasing numbers of students to university. Over the years, Government funding of post-secondary education has been driven primarily by enrolment. This means the post-secondary system has become addicted to enrolment growth and the tuition revenue it brings. This has, as figures would support us, shown that there are more students enrolled in humanities programs than science, technology, engineering, math, computer science and information science combined. The end result though is over 20 percent level of unemployment rate in our country. Although the key message of this commentary is not to demean the humanities or none-math programs, we ought to make a call that suggest some sort of temporary freeze to financing programs with poor job prospects. The truth of the matter is that the total number of graduates in this field is still very large. These are the same graduates who are now roaming the streets with no permanent or even temporary jobs. This calls for a deliberate change in the way we do things. That is why our first call is that perhaps it is high time that the government stop funding programs that have neither a direct link nor pathway to some type of employment. The University of Botswana should find it easy to impose a moratorium on courses with poor job prospects ÔÇô Our semi private Universities should also find easy. If it’s hard, then the government knows what to do.

This strategy is the only way to ensure that the government aggressively invest in programs that better reflect our current labour market needs.  Uncontrolled expansion of universities which offers duplicate programmes should be the government’s number one priority. This could be done by urging institutions around the country to reduce student intakes in courses with low levels of graduate employment. Courses should be ‘downsized’ or even cancelled if less than 60 percent of their graduating students in two successive years fail to find work – Period. At the same time, the government should also build a labour market information system to map supply and demand. The Bottomline however is that there is need to focus not just on expanding higher education, but also ensuring quality at the same time if graduate unemployment is to be contained.

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