Almost a year into his appointment as the 6th Vice Chancellor of the University of Botswana (UB) and just days after hosting his first ever Graduation ceremony, Prof David Norris finds himself caught between rolling out his roadmap on one hand and defending ethical conduct among his academic staff among a plethora of issues, on the other.
To cheerleaders who wish UB could be among the top league of performers in Africa and the world at large, the appointment of Prof Norris was hailed as a great Christmas gift and God sent. Although the UB community breathed a sigh of relief at the appointment of Prof Norris, insiders complain that to date little has changed. "The only thing that has changed is the UB website which has changed in form but remains without the requisite information. Prof Norris has both severe obstacles and opportunities to transform UB and deliver it to the association of top universities in Africa and the world as its motto suggests," said a source.
UB has the best physical infrastructure on the African continent. The library, lecture rooms and theatres, and laboratories are some of the best on the African continent and are comparable to those in world-class universities in Europe and North America. The state of the art sports centre and the University Conference Centre are excellent facilities. Despite these fabulous physical infrastructures, UB is not even ranked: globally or in Africa. UB does not feature in the most recent Times Higher Education World University Ranking 2018. Any administrator would be concerned about this. Insiders point to numerous obstacles which stand in the way of Prof Norris to deliver UB to the top league of universities in Africa.
Two critical areas that are a cause for concern about UB have been identified. They are weak governance and poor research performance.
Sources at UB complain that the university is poorly governed, from top to bottom, with the composition of the Governing Council being the biggest obstacle to transformation. A new Governing Council was recently appointed to replace the old one. With a mandate for policy formulation and developing concrete strategies for excellence, the membership of the deposed Council was dismissed as not fit for purpose. The complainants criticised the choice of the Acting Vice Chancellor, after the resignation of the former Vice-Chancellor, as laughable. In a stinging criticism of the choice of Acting VC, sources said: "Aside from being part of the faction that wanted to see the back of the then VC, she had no academic credentials to write home about. Based on her research output, she would not even head a department in a serious university. Yet, the Council was of the opinion that she was the right candidate to lead UB in the interim period".
In an interesting development, hardly a month after the coming into office of the Acting Vice-Chancellor, the now deposed Governing Council had already reversed almost all decisions they made when her predecessor was in office for unknown reasons. For example, the old Governing Council had reversed the creation of the office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation which was already advertised and several applications received. "One wonders whether it was the same Council that had made the decision in the first place or not. How can you annul what you have already passed and have not even tested whether it works or not? If this was a knowledgeable Council about higher education who know the importance of research and innovation in a university, they would have known that this was the way forward," said the source.
To make the decision of shelving the position of deputy VC for Research and Innovation even more ludicrous and ironical, the source observes, the same Governing Council shortly thereafter employed Prof David Norris, who was then the Deputy Vice Chancellor in charge of Research and Innovation at Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST). "This was the position they annulled at UB. Consequently, the UB Council is either incompetent, ignorant, or not fit for purpose, or a combination of all these," the source fumed.
Sources also question the competence of some UB managers at all levels, saying it is another aspect of governance problems at the institution. They complain that although UB boasts of excellent infrastructure, maintenance is such a huge problem. As an example they point to corridors to lecture rooms and theatres which are strewn with broken furniture while lecture rooms and theatres are equipped with faulty projectors that have not been working for months if not years. There are toilets in several buildings that have not been working for years and are covered with black plastic bags, they say. In addition, several of the toilet pans and cisterns are without covers and are instead covered with black plastic bags. "Estate Managers prefer to sit in their offices and sign for vouchers to buy new black plastic bags to cover broken toilets instead," a source said.
Insiders have also expressed concern that although several services at UB are outsourced, the university continues to employ several people to render the same services, creating an unnecessary financial burden on an institution already suffering from severe funding deficit. They said another sad reality at UB is the ratio of academic to support staff. For every academic staff, they said, there is 2.3 support staff. This ratio takes the meagre resources of the university away from its core functions of research, teaching and community service and creates a cost centre that is entirely unnecessary, the concerned argue.
The ranking of a University is based on five pillars: teaching, research, citation, industry income and international outlook. Industry income and citation are linked to research. Similarly, teaching goes hand in hand with research and collaboration and a University can only have a strong international outlook as a result of a vigorous research culture that attracts international students, experts and funding. Consequently, research is pivotal to the purpose of a University. How does UB fare when it comes to research? UB operates at about 70% below global average research performance with nearly 85% of its publications in predatory or unrecognised publication outlets. International students constitute less than 0.5 % of UB population and international staff of less than 5%.
There are three major mind-boggling and stomach-turning issues with research at UB. First, the research is of extremely low-quality, often in predatory and unrecognised fly-by-night journals. These types of journals are often published in India, Pakistan, and West Africa but dupe their victims with website addresses in Europe and America. The journal outlets usually publish within three days to one month upon payment of between US $ 100 – 400. Although the website addresses are in Europe or America, article publication fees are often directed or wired to cities in India, Pakistan or West Africa.
Second, plagiarism, where academics claim the ideas and words of others as their own (in case of another’s words) or without giving credit where others’ ideas or words have been paraphrased. Finally, and worst of all, where academics wilfully and knowingly publish the same manuscripts two or even three times, pretending that they are new and different publications. Consequently, these types of publications have no citation impact and taint the international image and reputation of the University. Accordingly, this type of fake research has broader ramifications for UB as it cannot achieve any ranking as a result of abysmal research performance, pitiable citation, insignificant or no industry funding, poor teaching and grim international outlook because of the fake publications affiliated to UB that are widely available of the Internet.
UB has declined an oportunity to comment on the issues raised in this article and have ignored questionnaires sent to them over two months ago despite repeated promises to do so from the Public Affairs Officer- Media, Thomas Nkhoma.
In the next edition we will give a detailed discussion of a few examples of plagiarism from three departments in the Faculty of Social Sciences, to illustrate the poor quality and scandalous research performance. The questionable research publications are from Department of Economics, Department of Psychology and Department of Statistics.