Sinister signs in the sponsorship quota horizon

Uncertain future: Govt has imposed quotas on sponsorship at tertiary level
Government hails its new quota system for tertiary education sponsorship as addressing skills mismatch, prudent resource deployment and graduate unemployment. Other commentators are seeing more sinister side-effects and intentions, reports Staff Writer, BABOKI KAYAWE

The ‘truism’ that tertiary institutions are producing non-market ready graduates, has been the talk of conferences and workshops held to strategise the country’s human capital development. In the past decade, institutions tasked with aligning higher education courses and market needs have been busy at work to resolve this national headache.

Essentially, the efforts have been around ensuring that the billions of Pula government pumps into sponsorship of tertiary students goes towards qualifications and skills that are required in the economy.  The idea is to avoid ‘wasting’ scarce national resources, inflating the numbers of graduates in already surfeit sectors, to the detriment of sectors where hands are required.

The strategising culminated in the publication of quota allocations of study programmes, through which government specified the number of students per institution per course, it was willing to sponsor, starting this year.

Education ministry spokesperson, Oteng Mokowe said 2016-2017 budget allocations and consultations with stakeholders were procedurally concluded earlier this year.

“The quota allocations were finalised and distributed to institutions between April 4 and 8 to inform their decisions and advertisements,” writes Mokowe.

According to the allocations, non-priority areas for the University of Botswana (UB) for instance include Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) marketing, BBA Management, BA Humanities, Bed Adult Education, and Diploma in Population Studies.  The result of the quota is zero sponsorship for admissions in programmes such as Languages, History and others.

The quota system prioritises health, engineering, science and other non-humanitarian and practical courses.

But will the new system arrest the proliferation of graduate unemployment, skills mismatch or it will only open up a host of other challenges?

UB students were able to force through a suspension of the quota system this week, after at least 1,500 freshmen found themselves stuck with admission papers and no sponsorship. However, authorities held their ground on sponsorship of ICT and humanity and these students will have to find alternative sponsored courses, find their own funding or drop out.

A senior lecturer in the UB, speaking on condition of strict anonymity, strongly feels the new quota system has sinister side effects which include ‘vocationalising’ the university and turning it into a ‘training ground’.

To say that universities are producing graduates not ready for the job market, he argues, is just a pretext as the industry is supposed to turn these graduates into what they want them to be.

“The role of education is to produce graduates who are trainable for the job market. If the industry’s argument was that these graduates are not trainable then they could be having a case,” he adds.

“The whole approach of concentrating on scarce skills is wrong.”

The professor raises the debate about universities as providers of education versus training.  While training is about practice, about skill, about learning how to do things, he argues that education is about fostering the mind, by encouraging it to think independently and introducing it to knowledge of the physical and cultural world.

“The function of universities is to holistically educate a person to appreciate the nature of society as well as instil a humanistic outlook. It is not to train but educate people.”

“What is happening now is to do away with the education function of the university, which is a major deficiency of this approach,” he continues.

He concedes that certain aspects of the university curricula can be ‘vocationalised’ but not every aspect of it.

“For instance if there is a shortage of interpreters in the country, the humanities can be aligned such that they train those,” he says.

According to the lecturer, because of stiff competition among firms, the industry wants to keep production costs as low as possible and thus shift their responsibility to train graduates for employment to someone else.

“The mantra of skills mismatch is driven by those who have an interest in education as a supplier of human capital, but who do not want to train these graduates for the job market,” he says.

“The fact that the market always asks for certain years of experience prior to recruiting, though it

does not want to invest in provision of such experience, amplifies the fact that the market is unwilling to spend in skills development.

“That is rubbish. Where do you get the experience? By turning the university into a vocational institution?”

According to the lecturer, the real crux of the matter is that the economy is not generating enough jobs, and ‘obviously’ the easiest thing for a government to say is that the jobs are there, but there are no qualified candidates.

“So what is happening now is that the education system is being blamed for an economic problem,” he says.

On the issue of funding, the lecturer believes that there is “a pretext to spend less” in education, as government is initiating other programmes such as Target 20,000 which is receiving millions in funding.

He believes a critical blunder was government’s embrace of all private tertiary education providers under the idea that this would cut the costs of building more public institutions.

“Government blundered in the first place by embracing private providers because it appears government made guarantees to support them by way of student sponsorship,” he says.

“Some of these institutions have engaged first-degree holders as lecturers for undergraduate programmes, which seriously compromises quality.

“If their quality was closely monitored then their existence could have been a plus in bridging gaps in excess.”

The quota system, he says, carries an emphasis on distributing government-sponsored students across all tertiary institutions, including those players in the private tertiary sector with dubious quality.

"Government is sacrificing its own public institutions to support private institutions," he says.  “If government wants to offer private providers support, this really has to be minimal.

“While some programmes offered by private institutions have really shaken up the UB, which is good for competition, the quota system is only going to make tertiary education a business than a public good.

“With the continued cutting of government-sponsored students at public institutions, I foresee more private institutions being given space in public institutions to maximise their profits since they will be saving investment on infrastructure.”

Government’s swing towards sponsoring more vocational and practical training and sharing infrastructure with the private sector is captured in the Education and Training Strategic Sector Plan (ETSSP), which stresses that this will be achieved by partnering through Public Private Partnerships (PPP).

 In an interview with Mmegi last year, education minister, Unity Dow said she had been to private tertiary schools to assess their facilities, programmes and capacities. The PPP model, she said, would allow a private tertiary education provider to utilise public infrastructure if their own capacity was limited.

“There are 37 brigades that we are offering to the private sector if they want to offer Technical Vocational Education and Training programmes, but they are short of infrastructure and other facilities.

“Their programmes have to be Botswana Qualifications Authority-accredited. We are going to be partnering with Ba Isago, ABM, Botho and others as we are looking at an additional 20,000 learners by January 2016,” she said.

“We want to know if they have the capacity to train them.  I am saying to the private sector, we have land as the Ministry of Education, come, bring your business plan and see if I cannot give you a piece.”

Her comments and recent developments are the sum of all fears for the UB lecturer, who says the quota system will benefit private providers as vacant infrastructure in public institutions unsponsored by government, will go towards them.

“PPP is a strategy by business people to access public funds,” he says.

“This will lead to the ultimate privatisation of some segments of public institutions, and it is already happening.

“Government must continue funding all programmes, but with more emphasis on value and return on investment.

“I would rather have educated and unemployed people than unemployed and uneducated people.”

The winds of change have begun blowing and only time will reveal the real composition of the quota system and whether it will indeed undo the skills mismatch, redirect spending in a prudent manner and lower graduate unemployment.




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