This letter addresses allegations made in both the Sunday Standard Newspaper (21/01/2018) and The Telegraph (17/01/2018), editorials addressing perceived threats to the existence of Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST) and University of Botswana (UB). The editorials make a number of claims about the perceived impact of subventions made to private tertiary education providers PTEIs, on public universities, which as PTEIs we seek to clarify. The first allegation, reflected in the headline of the editorials, “Government Subvention to Private Colleges Threatening BIUST and UB” is both misleading-and false. No PTEIs receive government subvention. Subventions are only available to publicly owned institutions, by virtue of being government owned. In contrast, private institutions receive tuition fees based strictly on the number of students that they admit. These fees are both transactional and performance based. Due to this reality, PTEIs are mindful to provide learning programmes that are relevant to labour market demands. To do this, they take guidance from the HRDC about skills in demand and undergo appropriate quality assurance measures with the Botswana Quality Authority (BQA), as a precondition for admitting students. Failure to do so means reduced admissions and inevitable reductions in revenue and invariably consequences such as staff attrition. Could such guaranteed funding explain the conclusion (right or wrong), by the editorial to the extent that the ‘country’s two most prestigious institutions are struggling to even attract students to them’? Whatever the case, it is unclear how reversing the role of private providers will improve the quality of education in public institutions. To PTEIs, ensuring the relevance of learning programmes, improving marketing abilities and networking capacities and investments in infrastructure, are fundamental to staying relevant. Such an imperative faces private newspapers that must write truthful news with public interest dimensions to remain relevant to the reading public and advertisers. Alleging causality between the mere existence of PTEIs and the decline in quality of education at public institutions is both tenuous and disingenuous. Long before the advent of PTEIs, many policymakers and businesspeople decried declines in education outcomes, and the mismatches between qualifications and labour market demands.
It is not the fault of public institutions that the editorials suggest they are victims of a conspiracy. Yet the article does a disservice to the whole country. Public and private institutions of higher learning train for the same labour market. Given the imperative to diversify the national economy, an important aspect of which is transforming Botswana to Knowledge Based Economy, all education and training providers must come up with relevant, learning programmes including in varied research fields. The editorials omit the contributions of PTEIs to increased access to tertiary education in Botswana. The sector has contributed significantly to increased access at tertiary level by moving from 7% in 2003/4 to 17% in 2016. The fact is that private sector education, in all its forms, has increased dramatically over the last two decades across the world, especially in the African continent. Globally the best tertiary education institutions are private sector led. In Botswana, the private education sector is now an integral part of the higher education landscape enrolling 25,852 (42.6 per cent) students compared to 34,758 (57,4 per cent) in the public sector in 2014/2015 academic year. The Unit Cost Study commissioned by the European Union has also made the stark point that educating students in PTEIs is far cheaper in comparison to their public counterparts, particularly when one takes the subvention into consideration. These fee reductions have led to the nation realising savings. New learning programmes introduced by PTEIs have also broadened the curriculum in Botswana. The uniqueness of curricula offered by many PTEIs explains why many students have increasingly resorted to these institutions in recent years.
Contrary to the accusation that PTEIs seek to make profit at all costs, the truth is that PTEIs have also increased access to education to traditionally underserviced populations. Many have, and continue to enrol students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Such students from the Remote Area Dweller Programme (RADP), and Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVCs), might otherwise not have been admitted to higher education.
PTEIs embrace quality management. The Botswana Qualifications Authority (BQA) makes regular visits and demands for monitoring data to assess the sufficiency of human, technological, key physical, material and other resources for optimal teaching and learning outcomes and learner protection. To gain registration and accreditation PTEIs undergo rigorous assessments while public institutions invariably need only an Act of Parliament. An important regulatory expectation is that institutions will engage suitably qualified staff. In this regard, private providers have continually sought to improve their faculty through the recruitment of local and international experts. This continuous process includes employing PhD and Master’s Degree holders both to teach and lead faculties and departments. The editorial makes the point that PTEIs breed corruption. Fighting corruption needs the efforts of all in society. It is the duty of every citizen, the Sunday Standard included, to report cases of suspected corruption to relevant authorities. However the implication that public institutions are free from corruption carries the biased view that ALL actions by public officials are in the public interest and vice-versa. Just as in private providers, past media reports have made allegations of corruption in public institutions. Besides being untrue, suggesting that corruption is a private PTEI phenomenon reduces the urgency of addressing the scourge by all. The Botswana Association of Private Tertiary Education Providers (BAPTEP), which is a member driven association representing PTEIs emphasizes to its members the imperative to conduct themselves with the highest integrity. The association has a Code of Ethical Conduct which guides members. At BAPTEP, we are open to continuous engagement with stakeholders, the media included in order to improve the quality of education in the country. We believe that both the public and private tertiary educators have a fundamental role to play in our national development.
*Gape Kaboyakgosi, PhD (President – BAPTEP)