Part One: The Definition Problem
This is the first in the series of column articles that discuss what could be termed the capture of Botswana Tertiary Education. We are in trouble. We are in a lot of trouble because of individual greed. Instead of digging ourselves out, we continue to dig, and with every spade work, we are sinking deeper and deeper into the quicksand of corruption and impropriety on a scale that we have never encountered before. The Botswana tertiary education landscape is in a lot of trouble. It has been taken over by shrewd business men who don’t care about quality education but rather above everything else prioritise profit. These business men and women have formed very tight bonds between their business interests and political individuals who have influence; who can swing things in their favour. They therefore engaged in totally unethical conduct and use profit gained from their private tertiary institutions to fund politicians and political activity. They give out large donations! Politicians in turn provide these individuals with students (which represents government sponsorship running into millions of pula). However, to capture the Botswana tertiary landscape successfully, the business men redefined the nature of Botswana’s sluggish economy problem from the period around 2008. They redefined the problem of unemployment faced by Botswana.
They argued that the reason that unemployment was so high in Botswana was not so much because business was not creating jobs which could absorb graduates. They blamed unemployment squarely on education. They argued that the current crop of graduates was unemployable because it didn’t possess essential skills which could make them contribute meaningfully to a changing economy. The graduates were only prepared to be employees and not employers. They looked for jobs instead of creating them. They were talking about graduates from good universities in South Africa, America, England, Malaysia, and Singapore and of course the University of Botswana. They argued that actually there were loads of jobs all around. The unfortunate reality, they said, was that the graduates were ill prepared and unable to grab these jobs with both hands. The country therefore needed new courses which would prepare the students for a world of work. Students needed skills and not just certification.
Their target inevitable became the University of Botswana (UB). UB was caricatured. It was lampooned and portrayed as old fashioned, slow, and not adaptive enough to the changing field of training. For the first time men and women went on radio to despise UB education as not sexy enough and as preparing students for a time that has long past. The once glorious national institution, the very one that produced the brilliant minds of our nation, overnight had taken on cobwebs and appeared ancient. The attacks zoomed on the issue of skills. The attackers asked rhetorically: What skills is a student studying physics learning? What skills is the student studying theology learning? What skills is the student learning sociology learning? What skills is the student studying English learning? Zero! Zilch! “Look we are teaching students health” “Look we are teaching students computing which is essential in a modern economy.”
The government was sold a lie. The accusers could not point to a single field which was lacking trained personnel. The remedy they proposed therefore was that new institutions, new courses, new programmes were needed which would respond to the demands of the world of work. They argued that the current training in traditional institutions was ancient. It lacked creativity and spunk. New terms which excited Members of Parliament were thrown around in reckless abandon: information super highway, knowledge economy etc. The government was fooled. It was sold a dummy. The tertiary education capture was in full swing. None of the proposed programmes could not be handled by UB, BIUST, BAC or BUANR.
So these business men and women built institutions in corners of malls or above fast food chicken outlets and then developed funky sounding courses which led a generation of students nowhere. They promoted the courses and institutions. They erected billboards, bought space in newspapers and airtime on radio. They visited schools, trade fairs, shopping malls and night clubs. They went into churches, mosques and synagogues. They sponsored some events and put up their boards everywhere. They had a singular goal: to milk government to its last penny. They made friends with Members of Parliament and members of bodies that approve institutions and programmes. They made donations and gave gifts and bought them Indian curry and such meals that parliamentarians would wish for. They had them wrapped around their little fingers. They admitted students in their hundreds, then thousands. They made thousands, then millions. They were careful though. They didn’t want to lose the money they were making from government. Therefore they employed poorly qualified instructors, especially those coming from unstable countries, who in most cases were prepared, in fact thankful, to accept the little salary that was offered. The bogus institutions lacked experts of any field. They lacked good libraries, fast internet, modern classrooms and lecture theatres. Unlike UB academics, their staff did no research; they did not publish or write books. They produced substandard programmes and courses and inevitably substandard students. Their graduates joined a host of other unemployed students. Worse for them, they were from institutions whose credibility didn’t stretch beyond the boundaries of their villages. The students’ futures were ruined forever.
In their defence the bogus institutions attacked UB and accused it of producing research which was irrelevant to the country. Not that they themselves had produced any research at all. The attacks were important because their ultimate aim was to undermine the scholarly contribution of UB to the body of knowledge in the country and the world. For a while the standard of the University of Botswana was reduced to the level of these low-level institutions. UB was advised to compete at the level of lizards. Full tertiary education capture was in full swing.