Is Education a budget bully?

The future: Students at the University of Botswana
The future: Students at the University of Botswana

Every budget since independence has generously pumped funds into education, under the nobel mantra: " education is the key to life". Billions of Pula later, misgivings and strategic interventions are beginning to set in, as decades of investment seem to be swelling the jobless masses. Staff Writer, BABOKI KAYAWE, looks beyond the numbers.

“Most important of all, the colonial government failed to recognise the need to educate and train our people so they could run their own country. Not one single secondary school was completed by the colonial government during the whole 70 years of British rule. Nor did we inherit any properly equipped institutions for vocational training even at the lowest level of artisan skills.” The first president, the late Sir Seretse Khama uttered these iconic words in a moving speech given at Uppsala, Sweden on November 11, 1970.

A short four years after independence, Seretse was outlining what continues to be the principal rationale guiding budgetary investments in education. A lot of work needed to be done, he was saying essentially, and that work will be the foundation of the Botswana we aspire to.

From having “not one single secondary school”, heavy investment in education over the decades, coupled with bedrock policies such as universal access and scholarships have underpinned the growth of skills in the economy.

The adherence to the principle of growing Botswana through training can be seen in the allocations given to the Ministry of Education through the years. Traditionally, the ministry has received the lion’s share of the recurrent budget and often appears in the top five in the development budget.

Between 2010 and 2014, the Ministry of Education was allocated P42 billion out of recurrent budgets jointly estimated at P163 billion. This means just over one out of every four Pula in the proposed recurrent budgets between 2010 and 2014 was allocated to education!

Finance Minister, Kenneth Matambo, on Monday continued the trend, proposing the allocation of P10.3 billion in recurrent spending for the ministry.

For this year, beneficiaries of the funding will include student bursaries for post-secondary education, subventions to government-supported institutions, costs associated with Levels of Operations arrangement as well as food and service charges for secondary schools.

Over and above the recurrent spending, billions more have been allocated over the years for infrastructural developments such as schools at all tiers, teachers’ houses, laboratories, libraries and other facilities, as well as vehicles, equipment and other capital expenditures.

This year, the ministry is set to receive P844.6 million for the construction of unified schools at Tsabong and Takatokwane and junior secondary schools at Maun and Francistown. In addition, the funds will build additional teachers houses.

In awarding the latest investments in education, Matambo sang from the same hymnbook as his predecessors. He explained that investment in education “is a pre-requisite for a productive workforce necessary for sustainable economic growth”.

However, winds of change have slowly been shaking the pillars that have supported the principles on education funding. Slowly, over the years, policymakers have noted an increasingly glaring mismatch between the amount of investment in education and the economy’s ability to accommodate graduates or create growth.

More primary, secondary and tertiary education institutions have opened up in recent decades, churning out increasing numbers of graduates whom the economy has failed to accommodate, resulting in either rank unemployment or growth of the informal sector.

The universal access guaranteed at entry level coupled with the burgeoning tertiary education sector, has broken the yesteryear bottleneck in the numbers of college and university graduation, but the economy has failed to keep pace or foster sustainable entrepreneurial development.

The result has been a cycle from primary school level to unemployment, and where graduates join the informal sector, the value they create is limited by the fact that their ventures swim below the tax net.

The extent of the blow dealt to the noble goal espoused by the country’s founding fathers can be seen in the fact that the Tertiary Education Fund for student loans that was designed to revolve, has rarely done so. Students have simply been unable to secure employment and thus have been unable to repay the loans, pointing to a waste of education investment.

In recent years, impetus has been added to the winds of change in education investment due to dire projections on the country’s future revenues. “Value for money” and “self-liquidating investments” have been prioritised in all budgets since the recession, although to an extent education has been insulated.

“There is need to ensure value-for-money throughout the implementation of our projects and programmes,” Matambo said on Monday, a statement he has repeatedly made over the years.

Changes are in the air.

Recently, Human Resource Development Council (HRDC) acting chief executive officer, Patrick Molutsi stated that the organisation was in the process of realigning higher education such that priority will be given to financing disciplines which are in short supply in the economy.

“Overhauling the system entails designing quotas that would be considered by tertiary education providers when enrolling students for programmes of study. In line with economic priority areas, the HRDC would stipulate the number of learners to be trained in specific fields for each higher learning institute,” he said of the plan, which is in the works.

Other changes are afoot too. The Department of Tertiary Education Funding will be dissolved in order to centralise tertiary funding. Already, the Human Resources Development Levy, previously run by the Botswana Qualifications Authority, has moved to the HRDC for harmonisation of human resources development financing in Botswana.

“We will also employ a fund manager to ensure the optimum operation of this fund,” Molutsi said. “It has to generate interest in the manner that pension schemes, for instance, do.”

University of Botswana graduate, El Ramodisa, knows first hand about the mismatch between education and skills output. After an exhaustive search for employment, he established a consultancy called My Guy Professional Finders Ltd in 2013.

My Guy Professional Finders offers to find property, car rentals, builders, architects and imported furniture on behalf of clients.

“When everything is exhausted and having tried everything you can to find a job without luck, only your passion can get you there,” the young entrepreneur says.

While Ramodisa supports heavier investment in education, he believes that Botswana is wrongly giving priority to higher education at the expense of the whole education system.

That higher learning institutions continue to proliferate with government-sponsored tuition is worrisome, Ramodisa says.

He belongs to the school of thought that says government is receiving very little returns from its education investments. “It should be clear what the education system wants to achieve. Do we just want an educated nation, or we want a nation that can contribute positively to the economy?” he asks rhetorically.

“The system must identify learners’ strengths and interests at a tender age and nurture those.”

The gap between scorched earth education investment and the needs of the economy were underlined succinctly four years ago, by Barclays Africa group CEO, Maria Ramos. At the time she was ABSA’s CEO, prior to a merger between the two banking giants.

Speaking at a University of Botswana Foundation fundraiser, Ramos said many education policies in the SADC region were unfit for economic development. “Education policies exist in most countries in the world and have become part of the fabric of our lives.

“But education policies and outcomes certainly do not always indicate that we truly take to heart the importance of education,” she said at the time.

Editor's Comment
What about employees in private sector?

How can this be achieved when there already is little care about the working conditions of those within the private sector employ?For a long time, private sector employees have been neglected by their employers, not because they cannot do better to care for them, but because they take advantage of government's laxity when it comes to protecting and advocating for public sector employees, giving the cue to employers within the private sector...

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