Friday, June 18, 2021

The role of the public and private sector education institutions: A response to Sunday Standard  

Universities must be “citadels not silos”, defending communities around them rather than being inward-looking, if they are to actively advance global development goals.  (MacGregor & Makoni 2010, University World News)

 

In response to the editorial comment in the Sunday Standard of September 6-12, 2015, headlined There is need to save UB against emerging bogus campuses, a correction of some factual misperceptions may be in order. UB will be in the best position to respond regarding whether or not they need protection from the Sunday Standard.  The fact is that private sector education, in all its forms, has increased dramatically over the last two decades across the world, especially in the African continent. In Botswana, the private education sector is now an integral part of the higher education landscape enrolling  25,852 (42.6 percent) students compared to 34,758 (57,4 percent) in the public sector  in 2014/2015 academic year.

In his State of the Nation Address in 2005 President Festus Mogae, announced that Government would sponsor students to local private institutions registered with the regulatory bodies. In May of 2007, the President invited the private education sector to help in Botswana’s commitment to increase its gross enrollment ratio from 7% in 2003/4, among the age group of 18 to 24, to at least 17% by 2016. His goal was to position Botswana on par with other leading middle income countries around the world. The Government was looking for partners because the “…the public sector is no longer in a position to provide all the tertiary education opportunities that will be needed in the coming years.”  The President emphasised that in education as elsewhere, that the Government was committed to the Public Private Partnership approach. The development of the local private tertiary education sector was viewed of great strategic importance for Botswana.

 

A historical reflection may be useful in understanding the contribution of the private education sector to Botswana’s education trajectory. The rate of enrollment (percentage of 18-24 years olds enrolled in tertiary education) has steadily increased from 4.4 percent (1997/8), to 7.7 percent (2003/4) to 11.4 percent (2007/8).  By 2009, the partnership with private tertiary education yielded its first tangible result. In real terms, in the two years from the first cohort of students enrolled in the private higher education institutions, there was a 75 percent increase in the gross ratio enrollment, from 31,129 (11,4 percent) in 2007/8 to 47,889 in 2008/9 (17 percent). This remarkable achievement was direct result of the bold step that Government took to partner with the private sector. While the enrollment share, between public and private providers, has been fluctuating there is a healthy competition between the sectors that are together providing educational opportunities to 60,583 students in 2014/15 academic year.

 

The total of 11,095 outbound students, who were sponsored by the Government to study in tertiary institutions outside the country in the period 2003/4ÔÇô2007/8, has been considerably reduced in 2015. This achievement, while absorbing the large numbers of students seeking higher education, also  reduced the huge financial burden of Government in sponsoring  students to study off shore as well as providing choices for students as to where and what they wished to study, which was not available locally pre-2007. In the period 2009/10 to 2014/15, a savings of  P253m was recorded by the Department of Tertiary Education Funding (DTEF) by sending fewer students to study outside of the country.

 

The acknowledgement that tertiary education institutions are considered to be key institutions for the production of high-level skills and knowledge of relevance, by both private and public sector providers, is based on the traditional core business of higher education institutions to produce and disseminate knowledge for the benefit of society. The volumes of literature, on the relationship between higher education and economic development, have grown considerably over the past couple of decades. While there will always be debates, amongst academics, researchers and policy makers on the precise role of this relationship,  no country can  ignore the role of education as the catalyst for future growth and prosperity. As such higher education has become one of the central areas of many governments’ knowledge policies including that of Botswana. This means that more policy/political actors than the Ministry of Education, as well as socio-economic stakeholders (private sector, unions, funders and research institutions), have become interested in higher education and are direct participants in higher education provision.

The question then is whether there is a common understanding by all, including the fourth estate, to appreciate the role of the private education providers and the unprecedented transformation that has taken place over the last two decades in aligning and steering the educational system towards achieving the goals articulated in various policy documents.   In examining the need for a common understanding, perhaps the first question, relates to whether or not the public sector by itself could meet the educational needs in an environment   in which Botswana needs to shift from a resource to a knowledge based economy. In 2005, in the paper titled Education Policy for Botswana, it was noted that the public tertiary education institutions have been slow to respond to changes in the labour market; have been poor in terms of establishing linkages with the market and have not responded sufficiently in terms of curricula adaptation and quality to improve the employability of their graduates. When certain types of skills were needed in the economy, the public sector institutions were not able to quickly come up with programmes to meet these demands. The expectation that the well-endowed public sector institutions, with world class infrastructure and support from the state, will  play a leading role in delivering the type of education  that is required to meet human resources needs of the country in the 21st century, both at academic and technical and vocational levels, has not been realized.  It is in this vacuum that the private sector providers were invited to respond to the excess demand for tertiary education and the need for a diversity of skills.

 

The student numbers in the private institutions was also boosted by the Ministry of Education and Skills Development invitation to enroll OVCs (Orphans and Vulnerable Children) and RADP (Remote Area Development Programme) students, traditionally the preserve of the public sector institutions. The sector took on the responsibility in providing access to those who come from the most disadvantaged and underserved communities at huge added costs in terms of support services. More recently, the private sector has been invited to actively participate in Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) Programmes. 

The “phenomenal growth” of the sector raised a number of concerns and misperceptions, from the media and some in Government that continues to plague the private providers in 2015. Primarily the incorrect perception is centered on “the myth about costs” that were seen as disproportionately expensive; the more serious concern regarding the lack of appreciation of the quality standards and the relevance of the programmes offered. In a paper presented to Ministry of Education and Skills Development (MOESD) in 2010, Botswana Association of Private Tertiary Education Providers (BAPTEP) provided information that clearly demonstrated the lack of understanding of the “real cost” of tertiary education which is almost half of what students incur to be educated at a public institution. The real cost at public institutions must take into account subvention funds for grants, salaries, infrastructure and other support provided by the Government. A big portion of the private institution income is directly channeled into infrastructure, salaries and all other related costs in support of teaching and learning.  

The continued scrutiny and focus on the quality of education provided by the private tertiary education is expected. The sectors confidence rests on the role and responsibility of Botswana Qualifications Authority (BQA) and the Human Resources Development Council (HRDC), two legal instruments promulgated by Parliament (Bills passed in 2013) to ensure quality adherence and relevance of programmes offered. If there are any “bogus” private providers then surely the mechanisms are there to close these institutions. The confidence of the sector is linked to the understanding of the importance of quality tertiary education as a pre-requisite for the country’s ability to successfully compete in today’s increasingly knowledge-based global economy. Perhaps more important, quality in the private sector, is driven by market forces and continues to improve. Ironically, while the government’s BQA regulatory mandate requires all tertiary institutions, both public and private to adhere to its quality principles, the primary focus of the quality assurer appears to target private providers. The fact that the private providers are expected to strictly adhere to the world-class standards set by BQA, in their developmental stages (registration of most institutions took place in 2006), is most welcome.  These standards require the sector to employ qualified staff; provide adequate and conducive infrastructure for libraries and computer laboratories and provide other facilities for teaching and learning. While not all the private sector institutions may meet the full set of criteria expected, the developmental approach adopted by BQA allows for the sector to continuously work towards meeting the requirements.  The  built environment  developments, now estimated to cost billions of pula’s,  are  achievements that are visible even to those who are passing by some of the institutions. These developments, in a period of less than a decade, are remarkable.  

The sector is now employing doctoral level personnel to teach and provide leadership as Deans and Heads of Departments. It is a BQA requirement that all lecturers teaching degree programmes must have a master’s qualification.  A challenge experienced is the need for qualified candidates and the difficulties in recruiting from outside the country because of work and resident permits. It is encouraging that at the last Business Botswana Education Sector Forum meeting, the Minister of Education and Skills Development, proposed a high level meeting with the Ministry of Labour and Home Affairs to discuss and determine a way forward.

A responsibility in terms of public good is the value of the tertiary education system to generate research and knowledge and to test the applicability of that knowledge in open public forums. Is there a danger that the private sector, because of exigencies of economic,  market orientation and “profit”  would neglect research? This is not borne out by the fact that some institutions have received funding from HRDC and produced research papers published in reputable journals. The focus on offering post-graduate programmes also allows the academic staff to participate in conferences and seminars. There is evidence that a greater number of staff are now participating in research that has a direct bearing on their teaching and learning responsibilities.  Public universities have an opportunity to excel and provide “world class” postgraduate programmes especially in highly specialised areas such as engineering, medicine and in the broader science fields.

The ideal partnership requires continuous vigilance in ensuring that the education sector does not revert back to its “silo mentality.” In a report, published by the Centre for Higher Education and Transformation (CHET, 2011), titled Universities and Economic Development in Africa, Botswana was one of eight African countries studied. The authors of the report concluded that in Botswana, while the state-of-the-art knowledge economy policy was recognised, it was not shared across all critical stakeholders and that there was no broad agreement that knowledge and by implication higher education, are key to development. The authors cited research, undertaken in Finland, South Korea and the state of North Carolina in the US, as providing evidence of a strong state involvement in funding for higher education; in using funding to steer the higher education sector to respond to labour market requirements and incentivizing research and innovation in the higher education sector.

 

While the key policy goal for a single co-ordinated tertiary education system has largely been achieved, through the HRDC and BQA Bills, the danger that some sectors of tertiary education will continue to operate in a stand-alone or silo mode, will derail the goal articulated in Towards a Knowledge Society (2008) of the link between a country’s potential to succeed and its capacity to develop the skills and knowledge of its people. The evidence of the link “between universities, political authorities and society at large” is acknowledged in key policy documents that examine the role of education in the economic development of the country. This is the path the Government of Botswana needs to appreciate and continue to nurture to ensure private sectors’ contribution to the educational requirements of the country.  

The challenge for Botswana will be to have a system of quality education that is adaptable to the needs of the country as the world around changes. The country’s future prosperity depends on ensuring that its human capital is ready to engage with a world in which the economy is fuelled by knowledge workers. The demands for providing the opportunity for all citizens to participate in the knowledge economy will be realized by the recognition and support of the partnership between public and private education providers. 

 

*Kishun is President of Botswana Association of Private Education Providers (BAPTEP). He writes  in his personal capacity.

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