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UB state-of-the-art facility under siege

BABOKI KAYAWE TEFO PHEAGE
UB Conference Centre PIC: MORERI SEJAKGOMO
Tensions and divisions, littered with political interference, are brewing at the University of Botswana (UB), over the sourcing out of the state-of-the-art conference centre.

The matter reached boiling point last December when those against the outsourcing of the facility allegedly began a smear campaign “to scare away potential bidders”. The alleged saboteurs are said to have circulated stories that the facility is water seepage. 

Talk was rife within the university corridors that the multimillion pula facility had dire water seepage, risking the collapse of the whole structure. However, sources that preferred anonymity found onsite at the facility said the camp that opposed outsourcing spearheaded that campaign.

“The crux of the matter is that some key players in the hospitality industry have approached some politicians to influence UB management to outsource the conference centre. Their reasoning was that given the facilities’ status it would out compete them.  

“While it is true there is abundant underground water in this place I can tell you that the design and construction of the facility has been done to accommodate that water situation. It is not true that there is seepage,” one source said. 

Those motivating for the sale of the facility allege that renowned players in the hotel and conferencing business feel threatened by the magnificent facility, and are concerned they will lose business consequently.

“There are divisions within management with regard to outsourcing the facility as big players in the hospitality industry have complained to some cabinet ministers that the facility, due to its magnificence and status threatens their survival,” the source said.

The source added that there is political pressure now for management to outsource the facility to the highest bidder.

This was met with tension in some quarters as others are of the view that the conference centre was meant to offer market experience for students of hospitality and related programmes. 

Mmegi was reliably informed that towards end of December, potential bidders from within and the South African hospitality industry toured the facility.

Government funding for tertiary institutions has proven to be a challenge in recent years, and UB is not exceptional. Last year a bitter war of words erupted when UB management decried funding discrepancies between the institution and the Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST). 

The issue was recently raised in Parliament by Selebi-Phikwe West legislator, Dithapelo Keorapetse through a question that wowed parliamentarians on pay disparities between lecturers at the two institutions.

Disclosing the difference, Assistant Minister of Education and Skills Development (MoESD), Kgotla Autlwetse said UB pays lecturers between P16,975 and P29,164 per month, while BIUST pays P32,060.

“Moreover, BIUST can pay up to a maximum of 40 percent of the salary as supplementation,” the ministry of Education and Skills Development responded.

The disparity, the ministry said, is caused by the fact that BIUST is a newly established institution and like UB when it was established, they attracted housing allowance. These disparities, coupled with challenges in tertiary education financing, pressurised UB to explore alternative revenue sources.   

During the tour of the new facilities last year, the former deputy vice chancellor (finance and administration), Dawid Katzke stated that insufficient funding has led to a situation where shortages of prescribed material, especially for science programmes has become the norm.

Katzke explained that UB was allocated P1.5 billion for the 2014/15 academic cycle representing 82 percent of its budgetary needs, while for the period 2013/2014 it was given P436.1 million, which represents 68 percent of the budget.  “The 68 percent is not even enough for salaries,” said Katzke.

He added that reforms in the funding formula were essential.

Katzke told Mmegi then that the three facilities - Conference Centre, Indoor Sport Centre and the Teaching Hospital - were part of income augmentation strategy. He hinted that letting private individuals use the facilities will contribute

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towards the operational financing of the university. 

“Outsourcing some of the facilities to those without the capacity to design such structures would be part of generating third stream income,” he said.

Still at the same forum, vice chancellor Thabo Fako called the status quo non-proportional to student populations of both establishments.

He further said an unhealthy competition prevailed between the two public institutions, chiefly due to lack of equitable resource appropriation. As a result, the Conference Centre, together with Indoor Sport Centre and the Teaching Hospital are, in addition to providing students with practical experience, meant to relieve the institution from over-reliance on government funding.

According to the 2014 UB annual report, BIUST has presented challenges and opportunities for the university science and technology programmes. It further says there is now competition for students, staff and resources allocated for education and skills development. “Competition will ensure that UB constantly reviews its operations and programmes to remain attractive and competitive,” it reads.

The conference centre, which was initially planned to be completed in 2013, is scheduled for completion this month. 

The April scheduled completion was confirmed by UB spokesperson, Mhitshane Reetsang, in December. She added that operations are expected to resume “as soon as it is completed.”  However, she dismissed claims of water seepage at the facility.

“The University is not aware of that. The facility is designed to handle the rise in underground water table,” she said.

She added that the “land surveying process was thoroughly done. Due diligence in design was carried out to address any possible rise in the water table hence the provision of a drainage sump. The water captured in the sump will be used for irrigation”.

 Reetsang could not state how many people will be employed at the centre, suffice to say “surely jobs will be created, but the numbers will be determined by the need at the time of operation.”

However, Reetseng is still to respond to the issue of differences emanating from the facility outsourcing despite being given questions almost two weeks ago.

For their part, Botswana Tourism Organisation (BTO) said they do not know much about the project as they have not been engaged but highlighted the need for the facility to rise.

“We always take interest in infrastructural developments that add to the needs of the country in various forms particularly if such developments have potential to positively impact the country’s ability to better host global events,“ BTO spokesperson Keitumetse Setlang said.

“Our strategy on growing the Meetings Incentives Conferencing and Events (MICE) tourism, is dependent on availability of requisite world class infrastructure,” Setlang said.

“While we have learnt about the development of a facility at the University of Botswana we do not have precise details on the project as the project commissioners are under no obligation to inform us.”

Setlang continued that such developments are usually done looking at the project commissioner’s needs and wherever possible, external stakeholders will be allowed access depending on external usage opportunities.

“However should external usage opportunities be available, we will be interested in doing our own assessments to establish its suitability to the events that we host,” she said.

Located opposite the Botswana Public Service College in Village, the 3,698 square kilometre facility at the bone of contention is expected to provide training facilities for the university staff and external clients. The centre boasts of a purpose built 200-seat auditorium, a video conferencing room, variety of boardrooms, meeting and assessment rooms.

Furthermore, it contains offices, 70 rooms to accommodate patrons and catering facilities in the form of bar, restaurant and kitchen. It is said to have cost P85.4 million to build, furbish and furnish.



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