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The decline and fall of higher education in Botswana: The curse of commercialisation (Part I)

Students at a local tertiary institution
Higher education is in a state of decay in Botswana with grave ramifications for the plight of young ones who should compete with their peers elsewhere in the global economy. In this first installment of a two-part series, TITUS MBUYA* explains the extent to which commercialisation has bored deep into the fabric of our higher education system

The year 2016 ended on a high note with respect to the overdue debate regarding higher education in Botswana. University of Botswana’s Professor Thabo Fako’s presentation before the Parliamentary Committee on Statutory Bodies and Public Enterprises in November provided much needed impetus to the debate.

It is not so much the fact that the University of Botswana (UB) is cash-strapped that is critical to the debate, but the relevance of the institution in the modern economy as well as the implications of the fierce competition it is receiving from private tertiary institutions. The debate was useful to the extent that it brought into sharp relief the vacuousness and bankruptcy of our higher education system.

Unfortunately, the higher education debate got convoluted as those with vested interest in this sector became defensive, and tended to project themselves as heroes, while portraying others as villains. The fact of the matter is that there are no heroes in this debate. There are victims, and these are our children whose future is being destroyed.

The higher education debate cannot be reduced to a contest between public schools and private institutions. It is not about whether the University of Botswana is better, or worse, than private tertiary institutions. The debate is not between good and evil because the situation in both public schools and private institutions is disastrous. The real debate is about whether the nation is getting a return on the investment that it is making on higher education in terms of the relevance of the graduates that we produce for the modern (knowledge) economy.

The importance of higher education to the development of the nation cannot be overemphasised. Higher education can play a key role in accelerating the rate of growth towards a country’s productivity potential to catch-up or compete with those that are ahead of it. And it is with a heavy heart that I submit that higher education in general is in a state of decay in Botswana.

The reasons it is in that state are varied. Uppermost among them is the indifference displayed by our authorities to pedagogy. Countries wishing to move towards the knowledge economy are challenged to undertake reforms to raise the quality of education and training through changes in pedagogy and content.

Higher education is a broad topic, and one cannot address all its dimensions in one swoop. In this piece I will confine myself to the matter regarding “commercialisation” of higher education in Botswana. I will use commodification interchangeably with commercialisation. I do that guardedly as the two words are not mutually exclusive.

The debate regarding commercialisation of education is an age-old one. As far back as the 5th Century B.C.E. in Ancient Greece, the great philosopher, Plato engaged the itinerant intellectuals known as the Sophists on this subject. Sophists travelled around Greece teaching their students various life skills for a considerable price. The only citizens who had the money to learn from the Sophists came from the aristocratic class, meaning that many citizens were unable to learn from them.

Plato was vehemently opposed to the practice of charging a fee for teaching. Like his former teacher, Socrates, he believed that wisdom or knowledge – in any form- was to be imparted freely to the people. To Plato, knowledge should be available to everyone, not just to those who can pay. He described Sophists as “paid hunters after the young and wealthy; as merchants of knowledge and purgers of souls”.

Plato did not only ridicule Sophists for taking pay, he also mocked them for being “foreigners” and for bragging, as well as for their philosophical naiveté, and sham doctrines. He also criticised the Sophists for pedagogical and philosophical impotence. Plato’s most famous student, Aristotle, who also became a great philosopher, also accused Sophists of being motivated by money. He defined their art as “the semblance of wisdom without the reality” adding that the Sophist was “one who makes money from an apparent but unreal wisdom”.

Sophists, who earned a living by trading in knowledge, therefore, pioneered the process of commodifying education and knowledge. They became very wealthy and arrogant. Although Plato’s critique of the Sophists carried the day, commodification of education persisted through centuries while the Christian Church provided a model for non-commodified education based on Plato’s educational ideals.

However, the wheels really went off the rails with the rise of capitalism in the 16th Century. As money became the universal mediator again, a new relation between knowledge and commodity, or goods and services, was inevitably posed. In particular, the British philosopher, John Locke’s “labour theory of property” entrenched commercialisation as the world bought into his idea that labour was the major creator of economic value, and that labour should therefore, receive as its reward the value of the output it created. 

Botswana operates within a global economy dominated by neo-liberal principles, which basically give free reign to the private sector to control economic factors. Under this socio-economic order, education tends not to be considered as a public good in any meaningful sense. It is simply a commodity, much like any other.

In her essay titled, “Neoliberalsm, the Knowledge Economy, and the Learner: Challenging the Inevitability of the Commodified Self as an Outcome of Education”, Fiona Patrick argues that educational institutions have become part of a social reality that is “identified with an economic value system that shapes all reality in its own image”. Within this value system, knowledge becomes “objectified, measurable and transferable”.

In Botswana, commercialisation of education was intensified as a result of the reforms that were set in motion in the

tertiary education sector towards the end of the last millennium. Among others, the reforms focused on increasing access to tertiary education. Botswana was not the only one as other countries in Africa were also doing the same.

This was to be expected as the number of young people in the continent continued to outgrow that of older people. The number of learners in the tertiary education sector studying in Botswana between 2006 and 2009 more than doubled from around 22,000 to around 47,000. By 2015 the enrolment in tertiary institutions had increased exponentially to 60,583, exceeding education authorities’ target of 60,000 by 2020!

The rate of increase of this massification shot up immediately after Government decided to sponsor students in local private tertiary institutions. This followed an announcement by former President, Festus Mogae, in his State of The Nation Address in 2005, that Government would sponsor students to local private institutions registered with the regulatory bodies. Mogae explained that the government had to do that because “the public sector is no longer in a position to provide all the tertiary education opportunities that will be needed in the coming years.”

Up until that time, there had been an outcry, both in the private sector and public, that the public tertiary education institutions had been slow to respond to changes in the labour market. There was also concern that these institutions had been poor in terms of establishing linkages with the market and had not responded sufficiently in terms of curricula adaptation and quality to improve the employability of their graduates. It was envisaged that the new policy would assist towards closing this gap. By 2015, of the 60,583 students in the tertiary education system, 42% were in private institutions.

The decision by Government to extend sponsorship of students at private institutions has been both a blessing and a curse for higher education. It has been a blessing in the sense that these institutions have imparted skills to many young Batswana who are contributing to the economy in various sectors. Some of these young people are excelling in their respective professions while others have proceeded for further education, both locally and abroad, and acquitted themselves very well.

However, the sponsorship arrangement is also a curse in the sense that it has become a gold mine for unscrupulous businessmen who have no genuine interest in the education of our children. Between 2009 and 2015 Government spent about P2 billion on tuition fees and allowances on sponsored students. Government funding has, inadvertently, created what Plato calls philarguria (love of money) as education and training providers cash-in on this sponsorship bonanza.

The introduction of programmes like Target 20,000 by the former Ministry of Education and Skills Development does not help the situation. That programme, though well-intentioned, has turned into a jackpot for these sharks to cream profits off public funds.  It is not surprising that there is nothing so far to show for Target 20,000 in terms of skilling the young people to enable them to participate meaningfully in the economy.

Many students, full of hope and excited about furthering their studies, were introduced to all manner of disciplines, some out of this world, and before they could even figure out what the course was all about they graduated and left to hang and dry. Some of them may never have another opportunity to study and will never be able to come out of poverty.

For private institutions, commercialisation in the form of income maximisation is at the heart of the degradation of standards and quality in these schools. The owners of these schools run a tight ship. For them to make more money they have to cut costs, or in some cases cut corners, and make savings where they can. So if they can get away with not providing a library, or a laboratory, or workshop they will do so. If the regulatory environment allows them to cheat, and engage unqualified lecturers, they would do so because they save money.

The desire to maximise income in these institutions also manifests itself in the scam known as automatic promotion. Although none of the schools would admit it, students in most of these schools are promoted to the next level automatically, irrespective of their performance.

They are not supposed to fail because Government sponsorship might be stopped, and thus, jeopardise the commercial interests of the institution. The supplementary examination process, for students who failed some of the subjects, therefore, is just a mere formality because the students can be guaranteed that they will proceed to the next level, whatever happens.

It would be disingenuous to paint all private tertiary institutions in Botswana with one brush for ethical malpractice. There are some, which do their best under very difficult circumstances to meet the minimum standards set by quality assurance agencies and the regulator. Unfortunately, these have become an exception rather than the rule.

These observations about private institutions should not make public schools feel better. This article is premised on the thesis that higher education in Botswana is decaying, and this is a systemic problem that cuts across the entire higher education system. Standards are equally low in public schools for various other reasons, which may not be similar to those applying to private institutions.

In the next article we will focus on quality assurance, accountability and regulation in higher education.

*Titus Mbuya is a former teacher and founding member of the Botswana Federation of Secondary School Teachers (BOFESETE), which now goes by the name Botswana Sectors of Educators Trade Union (BOSETU).


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