Saturday, July 4, 2020

UB belatedly (half-)brags about its competitive advantages

In responding to a situation that requires it to compete for students, the University of Botswana is finally touting its strengths over its competition but, even then, is not going all the way.Of all the superlatives it can use to describe itself, UB restricts itself to one adjective in a print-media advert titled “The only comprehensive university in Botswana.” Elaboration for “comprehensive” is that UB offers more than 190 academic programmes. Considering what “university” is nowadays and how many more adjectives it can use, UB is being overly modest. The first university to be established in Botswana (there was none in the colonial era), UB was built in 1977 when the Lesotho Prime Minister, Leabua Jonathan, kicked Botswana and Swaziland students out of the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland (UBLS) which was in Roma, just outside Maseru. This makes UB the oldest university in Botswana and age enhances reputation of a university.

In the early 2000s, the government embarked on an ill-fated process to privatise tertiary education. The result was that some senior ruling-party politicians ruined and are still ruining the lives of young people by conniving with gamblers, most of them Asian, who roll dice in the education sector and win big. The Tertiary Education Council (which has been renamed the Human Resource Development Council) was supposed to ensure that students received quality education but to date, there are still complaints of how a majority of private-sector universities, which generally occupy as little physical space as possible, are gaming the system and cheating young people out of their future.In the past, Sunday Standard has reported about a university that plagiarised teaching notes from Wikipedia and copyrighted them. About a decade ago, TEC had to practically beg one university to not use the term “associate degree” because it caused confusion in a country where “degree” has only one meaning.

In Botswana, an academic degree is generally understood to mean bachelor degree and not enough people (prospective students included) know that associate degree actually means diploma. Almost year-round and ever since these universities were established, students themselves complain about getting sub-standard education and not enough of them end up doing the work they trained for. A good many of today’s salespeople studied engineering at these universities.The owners of these universities don’t just give students a raw deal, they also do the same thing with staff, which they exploit and deny labour rights. They typically weed out labour rights-conscious citizen employees and retain less assertive expatriate staff whom they exploit with impunity.

UB can brag about having a campus much larger than some Gaborone residential districts like Block 5 with all the facilities that a traditional university has; about having one of the best libraries in Africa; about having hundreds of PhD holders who have authored books; about having produced national leaders in all sectors of the national economy; about being ranked continentally; about having a robust R&D programme; about having competed against credible universities like the University of Cape Town; about a fully-fledged sports programme that has produced national stars; about an indoor stadium that can host world netball championships and  a presidential inauguration – about many more things.  After all, the university now has to compete for students with fly-by-night schools and there is no room for modesty in commerce.

UB can credibly claim the “university” title but most of its competitors can’t. As a matter of fact, former University of Botswana Vice Chancellor, Professor Thabo Fako, has called for legal protection of the “university” title, such that not every supposed institution of higher learning can call itself a university. He was speaking at the official opening of the UB’s world-class gymnasium.

Fako said that institutions “must go through stringent processes to allow them to use the title ‘university’ and the state must jealously guard against the use of the title ‘university’ and ensure that it is reserved for the most rigorous exercise of the mind on big questions of national and global importance.”

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Sunday Standard June 28 – 4 July

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of June 28 - 4 July, 2020.