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Past Editorial : May 2012

May 2012

1443651948496Diamonds Are Not Forever: Botswana at the Crossroads

Damtew Teferra Ph.D.
Dr. Damtew Teferra is a professor of higher education, the leader of Higher Education and Training Development, and founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He is also the Editor-in-chief of the International Journal of African Higher Education. He may be reached at
teferra@ukzn.ac.za and teferra@bc.edu.

 

At a higher education conference and fair organized by the Tertiary Education Council in Gaborone, Botswana, from 21 to 25 March 2012, it was declared that the diamond bounty of that country is expected to be depleted in 15 years, by 2026. Regardless of the veracity of this speculation and its implications, this indeed is not a good news for a nation whose status as a middle-income country has been realized by this pricey gem.

Largely spurred by this eventuality, and also partly in its resolve to be competitive in the knowledge economy, Botswana is actively striving to deploy its higher education system. As part of this endeavor, the country has started building a new big campus called Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST), some 300 km outside the capital.

 

The Profile

In 2010-11, Botswana has enrolled close to 38,0000 students in its tertiary education system which has 5 university and university level institutions, 5 colleges of education, 4 technical colleges and 8 institutes of health. As part of the consolidation of its knowledge and skills capacity, it is now merging two institutions—the Tertiary Education Council and the Botswana Training Authority, the later tasked with promoting capacity of skills development.

The country has 13 colleges and 1 university that are privately owned. In 2010-11, the private institutions accounted 35 percent of the tertiary education enrollment. In 2008-09, this figure was as high as 45 percent. The high fluctuation is attributed to the quota system imposed by the government on private colleges. Unlike most other countries in Africa, the government sponsors students in private colleges rendering them both direct beneficiaries as well as immediate casualties of government directives.

In terms of placement, the popularity of the long practiced policy of sponsoring students at overseas institutions has declined predominantly on the account of high and unsustainable cost as well as a more selective and targeted approach to international education. For instance, of the total of nearly 9,440 students in 2009, only a limited number were placed in foreign institutions: South Africa: 406; Malaysia: 109; Namibia: 86, Canada and United States: 10 each.

 

The Opportunities

By African standard, the tertiary enrollment rate for Botswana is high. Its 15 percent enrollment rate is three times higher than the average rate for the continent which hovers around 5 percent. The country is intending to raise the figure to 20 percent by 2016—when the country marks its 50-year independence.

Botswana has accepted tertiary education as a critical driver in creating an “educated and informed nation” for economic diversification and global competitiveness. The government has made a strategic choice to replace diamonds and minerals with human skills as a more reliable and sustainable economic and social development strategy.

In addition to expanding and consolidating its tertiary education system (a preferred term there than higher education), the country has also embarked on establishing a Botswana Education Hub. The Hub, coordinated by the Ministry of Education and Skills Development, is intended to make the country a preferred educational destination to position it as a regional center of excellence in education, training and research that contributes to economic diversification and sustainable growth. The marketing catch-words of the Hub include: to turn the country as a preferred destination to international students, scholars and trainees; a wide range of study options and institutions; a high quality education and training; affordable courses; friendly immigration policies; English as an instructional media; stable and sound economy; and low crime rate.

Botswana has already been known to attract prominent experts from Africa and the rest of the world due to largely its competitive salary and benefits packages, good working and living environment, among others. Unlike most other African countries, it has had a practice of bestowing the leadership of its institutions with expatriates—the former University of Botswana vice chancellor and the current BUIST vice-chancellor, both from the United States, are good examples. Such a far-sighted strategy, in a small country where in-breeding is an imminent threat, plays a positive role in its effort to enhance its international visibility—and nurture its global competitiveness.

 

The Challenges

Most African countries blame one form of challenge or another—such as either social, economic, political, geographical and/or religious—for a weak socio-economic standing. But Botswana is lucky to have only a few of these challenges. A landlocked country, it suffers from high HIV- AIDS prevalence. Though a mid-income country of two million population, yet still, 20 percent of them live below the poverty line. Botswana also has a problem of brain-drain—its graduates flock to South Africa, their much larger neighbor.

Botswana spends some 10 billion Pula (c. USD 1.4 billion) on higher education annually. So far, higher education has been largely tuition free. With ongoing expansion and consolidation, the country cannot simply afford to provide high quality education and research of global standard without committing even more resources. And yet the resources from the government are already quite high, and there is therefore little room to maneuver for more. This has prompted a serious dialogue to diversify the cost of higher education.

 

Lemons and Lemonades

Overproduction of graduates in some sectors has been already considered as a national challenge. For instance, the over production of teachers—from the unusually large number of teacher colleges for a nation the size of Botswana—has been noted. While this has been considered a challenge, an opportunity is opening for excess to be released to countries, such as South Sudan, where such expertise is needed most, according to a government minister.

On the healthcare sector, Botswana was one of those countries that lodged complaints to the United Kingdom for poaching its healthcare specialists specifically demanding it to deny work permits, as a measure to stem brain-drain. With such a comparative advantage, instead of pursuing such un-conventional measure, the government could have pursued a win-win approach, by, among others, solicit support for excellent labs, facilities and infrastructure; develop up-to- date curricula and relevant modules; initiate robust student- and faculty-exchange programs; and plan for “mass” training of such professionals.

 

Lessons of Experience

Considerable knowledge could be drawn from many other natural-resource dependent countries such as oil-rich Gulf States where countries are taking aggressive measures to position themselves in the knowledge economy by investing in higher education as a critical launching pad. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has established the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) to “educate scientific and technological leaders, catalyze the diversification of the Saudi economy and address challenges of regional and global significance, thereby serving the Kingdom, the region and the world” (http://www.kaust.edu.sa/about/vision_mission.html#vision). The vigorous effort to turn United Arab Emirates into a global knowledge hub is yet another visible example from that region.

Botswana’s landlocked neighbor, Rwanda, a densely populated country with limited raw materials and natural resources, has been fully engaged in the development of its higher education system as a critical avenue to national development and global competitiveness. In an audacious effort, it is establishing a branch campus of a US-based university to offer masters degrees in IT and in electrical and computer engineering with a grant of US$95-million over 10 years from the government. Mauritius is a “sea-locked”, country that is deploying universities as avenues for national development and global competitiveness.

Even without facing the inevitable depletion of diamonds, it is critical that other alternative— “knowledge-laced”, if not necessarily, knowledge-based—technologies, processes and activities are strategically pursued and developed. For instance, diamond-cutting technology and knowledge have been transferred from Europe to Botswana. The country could become the regional powerhouse on a wide range of gem research and technology.

 

Conclusion

While the anticipated depletion of diamonds from Botswana is a not a happy prospect, it may be considered a blessing in disguise. The 15-year lifeline will give the country time to develop and implement policies and strategies to consolidate its development. A critical role for tertiary education institutions to realize that is unmistakable. It is critical that the leadership, governance and management of these institutions in particular and other sister entities in general are competent, effective and up-to–the-challenge in forging the way forward. Such a national emergency calls for: 1) an active and persistent engagement of relevant and concerned bodies, 2) toying with not-so-popular policy discourses and 3) regularly gauging and calibrating the wheels of disparate entities to run in harmony and similar trajectory.

An important lesson of the Botswana experience for other African countries economically dependent on natural resources is evident. The depletion bell should not always ring close to or, worse, before an alternative means of achieving global currency and competitiveness is established. The imminent threat and opportunity of replacing natural resources and raw materials with artificial substances is an everyday reality and possibility of cutting edge research and technology. Africa must always be reminded of this uncomfortable truth and thus nurture its human capital—aggressively, persistently and effectively.

 

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