At a higher education conference and fair organized by the Tertiary Education Council in Gaborone, Botswana, in March this year, it was announced that the diamond bounty of that country is expected to be depleted in 15 years. This is not good news for the country whose status as the middle-income country has been made possible by this pricey gem.
Largely spurred by this eventuality, and also partly in its resolve to be competitive in the knowledge economy, Botswana is actively striving to deploy initiatives for its higher education system. As part of this endeavor, the country has started building a new big campus called Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST), some 300 km outside the capital.
Botswana has enrolled close to 38,0000 students in its tertiary education system which has 5 university level institutions, 5 colleges of education, 4 technical colleges and 8 institutes of health. As part of the consolidation of its knowledge and skills capacity, it is now merging two institutions—the Tertiary Education Council and the Botswana Training Authority, the later tasked with promoting capacity of skills development.
The country has 13 colleges and 1 university that are privately owned. In 2010-11, the private institutions accounted 35 percent of the tertiary education enrollment. In 2008-09, this figure was as high as 45 percent. One of the main reasons to such a fluctuation is the quota system that is imposed on private colleges by the government. Unlike most other countries in Africa, the government sponsors students in private colleges rendering them both direct beneficiaries as well as immediate casualties of government directives.
In terms of placement, the popularity of the policy of sponsoring students at overseas institutions has declined predominantly on the account of high and unsustainable cost as well as a more selective and targeted approach to international education.
By African standard, the tertiary enrollment rate for Botswana is high. At 15% enrollment is three times the average rate for the continent. The country is intending to raise the figure to 20 % by 2016 when the country marks its 50th year of independence.
Botswana has accepted tertiary education as a critical driver in creating an “educated and informed nation” for economic diversification and global competitiveness. The government has made a strategic choice to replace diamonds and minerals with human skills as a more reliable and sustainable economic and social development strategy.
In addition to expanding and consolidating its tertiary education system, the country has also embarked on establishing a Botswana Education Hub. The Hub, coordinated by the Ministry of Education and Skills Development, is intended to make the country a preferred educational destination and a regional center of excellence in education, training and research that contributes to economic diversification and sustainable growth. The objectives of the Hub are to turn the country into a preferred destination for international students, education and training.
Botswana has already been known to attract prominent experts from Africa and the rest of the world due to largely its competitive salary and benefits packages and good working and living environment. Unlike most African countries, it often bestows leadership roles at its institutions on expatriates—the former University of Botswana vice chancellor and the current BUIST vice-chancellor, both from the United States, are good examples. Such a strategy, in a small country where in-breeding is an imminent threat, plays a positive role in its effort to enhance its international visibility—and nurture its global competitiveness.
Most African countries blame one form of challenge or another—such as either social, economic, political, geographical and/or religious—for a weak socio-economic standing. But Botswana is lucky to have only a few of these challenges. A landlocked country, it suffers from high HIV-AIDS prevalence. Although considered a middle-income country, 20 % of the population of two million, live below the poverty line. Botswana also has a problem of brain-drain—its graduates flock to South Africa, their much larger neighbor.
Botswana spends some 10 billion Pula (c. USD 1.4 billion) on higher education annually. So far, higher education has been largely tuition free. With ongoing expansion and consolidation, the country cannot simply afford to provide high quality education and research of global standard without committing even more resources. And yet the resources from the government are already quite high, and there is therefore little room to maneuver for more. This has prompted a serious dialogue to diversify the income streams to higher education.
Lessons of Experience
Considerable knowledge could be drawn from many other natural-resource dependent countries such as the oil-rich Gulf States where countries are taking aggressive measures to position themselves in the knowledge economy by investing in higher education as a critical launching pad. Saudi Arabia has established the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) to “educate scientific and technological leaders, catalyze the diversification of the Saudi economy and address challenges of regional and global significance, thereby serving the Kingdom, the region and the world” (http://www.kaust.edu.sa/about/vision_mission.html#vision). The vigorous effort to turn United Arab Emirates into a global knowledge hub is yet another visible example from that region.
Botswana's landlocked neighbor, Rwanda, a densely populated country with limited raw materials and natural resources, has been fully engaged in the development of its higher education system as a critical avenue to national development and global competitiveness. In an audacious effort, it is establishing a branch campus of a US-based university to offer masters degrees in IT and in electrical and computer engineering with a grant of US$95-million over 10 years from the government. Mauritius is a “sea-locked”, country that is deploying universities as avenues for national development and global competitiveness.
Even without facing the inevitable depletion of diamonds, it is critical that other alternatives, technologies, processes and activities are pursued and developed. For instance, diamond cutting technology and knowledge have been transferred from Europe to Botswana. The country could become the regional powerhouse on a wide range of gem research and technology.
While the anticipated depletion of diamonds from Botswana is a not a happy prospect, it may, be considered a blessing in disguise. The 15-year lifeline will give the country time to develop and implement policies and strategies to consolidate its development. A critical role for tertiary education institutions is unmistakable. It is paramount that the leadership, governance and management of these institutions are up to the challenge of forging the way forward.
An important lesson of the Botswana experience for other African countries dependent on natural resources and raw materials is evident. The depletion bell should not always ring close to or, worse, before an alternative means of achieving global currency and competitiveness is established. The imminent threat and opportunity of replacing natural resources and raw materials with artificial substances is an every day reality within the possibility of cutting edge research and technology. Africa must always be reminded of this uncomfortable truth and thus nurture its human capital—aggressively.