Professor Tjivikua: Namibia’s own Mwalimu

THE Rector of the Polytechnic of Namibia, Professor Tjama Tjivikua is recognized as one of the prominent and respected members of the Namibian society, “for having set up an excellent institution”. Prime Focus (PF) caught up with him to discuss his reign at the Polytechnic and other intrinsic issues about the institution’s recent call for name change to University of Science and Technology.

Mwalimu was a title given to former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, which means ‘teacher’ because of the lessons he imparted. In this interview, the term would mean more. It becomes a term of endearment and affection to education, to the Polytechnic, which he has served for 15 years.

Mwalimu was a strong and original and critical leader of his country, equally, Professor Tjivikua in this interview, shows how strong, original and creative a thinker he is on issues surrounding the Polytechnic of Namibia and the country’s education.

PF: You have been at the helm of the Polytechnic since 1995. How has been your journey?

TT: My journey as a professional in Namibia is intrinsically entangled with the journey of the Polytechnic as an institution. This cannot be any different, because the role of the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) is not only one of a manager entrusted with boundary maintenance and keeping up a status quo. The CEO ideally should be leader and manager in a transformational process of co-evolution with the surroundings of the institution. Also in this respect, the last 15 years have been extremely challenging but rewarding and overall a great success. The mandate of the Polytechnic is, and has always been, to confer academic degrees at all levels. Certainly, this was merely a potential at the point of inception of the institution, which had been inscribed in the Polytechnic Act (33 of 1994) with great foresight by the Namibian government. By now the institution has developed this potential into actuality, and we are now offering Bachelor, Honours and Masters, and are in the process of conceptualising Doctoral degrees in some selected academic disciplines. Indeed, the growth in every aspect has been phenomenal – staffing, enrolment, technology, infrastructure, partnerships. These are academic milestones which made my journey at the helm of this institution so enjoyable.

PF: How many students are currently registered with the Polytechnic on Namibia?

TT: We enrolled 11 548 students this year. This is indeed a fantastic growth for Namibia, considering the country’s imperative to become a knowledge-based economy, and against the backdrop that Namibia’s tertiary enrolment is at the low end of the spectrum.

PF: Is the number of academic faculty adequate for this number of students?

TT: Unfortunately, our staffing needs face a series of challenges; because we have about 400 approved faculty positions and currently only 250 full-time are filled. This has to do with a number of factors: One of them is what appears to be an insurmountable obstacle: lack of qualified Namibians in the disciplines on offer or to be developed. Therefore, we have to recruit faculty and staff at the international level. Globally, foreign scholars enrich the academic experience at universities. In Namibia instead we hold up the banner of self-sufficiency while making the acquisition or extension of visa a laborious process for foreign professors to the disadvantage of the students and the nation at large. In the meantime we employ a large contingency of part-time staff and depend on our faculty members to take supernumerary courses. This is not healthy because it burns out scholars and reduces their time on research and service, both which are essential responsibilities or functions of a university.

PF: What then have been your immediate challenges?

TT: One of them I just addressed, that is, the lack of qualified human resources. Another big challenge is the lack of physical space, that is, not enough lecture buildings, not enough laboratories, not enough computer laboratories, not enough student accommodation, not enough office space, not enough parking. A solution to most of these challenges requires money, and the funding has been, and is still way below the need of the institution, as recognised in the proposed Funding Formula for Public Higher Education Institutions. It is a matter of serious concern, a matter requiring urgent attention; otherwise we are running the risk of compromising the student population, or the nation at large.

PF: What has been your biggest success with the Polytechnic?

TT: My success is a veritable colourful tapestry. In summary, the Polytechnic is a credible, respected university. Part of it is certainly the recognition at national, regional and international levels our institution enjoys. It is most satisfying to note that our programmes meet international benchmarks and attract scholars from other universities. We have more than 80 international partnerships. Most of these partnerships have been initiated through my extensive contacts and on my visits to other institutions abroad, others have been forged by faculty members and administrators, who actively seek such partnerships for their academic development. Annually the production of so many graduates is every time another ‘bigger success’. And this list goes on.

PF: NUST or better Namibian University of Science and Technology. Why is the name such an important issue to you?

TT: The symbolic meaning of a name determines how we perceive, classify and respond to the other. If the name of a person or entity, or an institution does not conjure the right image, that is, an image which is not commensurate with the true nature and character of the institution, this compromises chances for self-assertion, -representation, but also growth and productivity. The Polytechnic by its statutory mandate, and in the meantime by its structure and performance, is a University in the true sense of the definition. Internationally those universities which have substantially engaged in co-operations and partnerships with us have always and without hesitation acknowledged this fact. On the other hand, some desirable international partners have however shown their reluctance to collaborate with institutions other than “university” by name. This is a hindrance to unlocking the full potential of the second Namibian public tertiary institution, a mistake which Namibia cannot afford to entertain. In international comparisons, our national enrolment rate in tertiary education is very low, and all development indicators point towards a strong link between tertiary enrolment and development. Also, economic growth requires the dedicated focus on science and technology, and therefore we need to create the appropriate platforms for enhancing our global competitiveness. This concept of a technical or applied university in Namibia I crafted in 1995 upon assumption of the post, and over time we have basically laid the building blocks for the realisation of this noble goal.

PF: Your answer puts forth an objective necessity to develop the University of Science and Technology. What about your personal ambitions and intentions; your legacy?

TT: Few persons do not have any ambitions. Most academics would be proud if they could print their stamp on history by being remembered as “Founding Vice-Chancellor”, “Founding Dean”, and so forth. At face value, there is nothing wrong with this. The point is that such ambitions may not become ends in themselves, because then we overwrite the functionality of our actions by vanity. The consequence will be empty hulls with no material purpose.

Personally, I became Founding Rector at a relatively very young age with my first appointment in 1995, an appointment which I assumed while a professor of chemistry in the USA. My personal ambitions in this capacity do not go beyond the objectives of my office. However, the energy, creativity, diligence and effort I put into my position and with it the functions of my office since assumption of duties, follow indeed my conception of an outstanding national tertiary institution. It is dismaying to observe how resources are apparently misappropriated, misdirected elsewhere and everywhere – time, money, ideas, plans, etc. This causes loss of traction, loss of productivity, loss of commitment. And commitment for the development cause, which is Vision 2030, we do need. I do see my actions squarely placed under our national ambitions to which I’m truly committed. If this comes with a legacy, it’s the course of history.

PF: Some insiders in government described your relationship with former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education, Vitalis Ankama as “rocky”. If so, did this become an impediment to the evolution of the Polytechnic into a University and finally the name change?

TT: I would not go so far as to personalise issues. But development at large can surely not be disconnected from the people who are its activators or inhibitors. A central and long-time player in the educative system like the former Permanent Secretary Ankama will always be perceived as having shaped the system. At the same time, since Durkheim, Marx and Weber, and latest since Giddens, we have the notion that structuration informs the ways in which we operate. As human actors, we always have to choose, mostly not under circumstances of our own choosing. And through those circumstances we create reality. Our environment provides us with opportunities and restrictions at the same time. In that light, I believe Mr. Ankama acted in good faith. I also believe he acted against the backdrop of an understanding which was reached in the early 90s, namely that Namibia should have only one university, viz. UNAM. Since then the exigencies of globalisation have made this understanding obsolete!

It is true that the United Nations agencies, also the World Bank, have had their difficulties conceptualising the co-evolutionary factor of tertiary education in human development. Until the end of the 90s the emphasis was laid on primary and secondary education, altogether on lower qualifications. But since then economic analyses and critique have demonstrated that the high-level knowledge, generic skills and competences nurtured and honed at tertiary level are prerequisites for developing economies to catch up, if it were, with the global pacemakers or trendsetters.

A complementary set-up of more than one university is then the green way to go, in particular if the extant public institutions are factually poised to produce the deliverables; it is indeed an imperative whose time has come. A hermetic education system is not what we need, please!

It is always counter-productive to cling to notions of the past when the overall opportunity structure has changed in ways which make adaptations and adjustments necessary. In that sense, yes I agree that certain people’s orientations and actions may have slowed down Namibia’s trajectory towards Vision 2030. And in this respect, the resistance to the renaming of the Polytechnic as University of Science and Technology is a throw-back or regression to ‘medieval era’.

PF: Students of Bachelor in Communication and Bachelor in English have financial troubles because the Ministry does not want to give loans/bursaries to them. What is this about?

Unfortunately, the Ministry of Education indeed excluded students on these programmes from bursaries/loans. But I don’t think that the Ministry does consider the programme learning outcomes unimportant. The Ministry and at its top the Minister are well aware of the connection between English and Communication proficiency and teaching and learning of other subject matters. The same is true in respect of the Entrepreneurship degree. Hence, at face value the issue was the alleged “duplication” of university courses by the Polytechnic and the “authority” of the institution to offer degree programmes, in spite of the fact that the Ministry has been funding degrees since 1999. To understand this in the face of UNAM having just introduced an Engineering programme, whilst the Polytechnic offers a full Engineering programme with support from the Ministry and Engineering Council since 1997, requires a margin of explanation. Similarly, other programs such as Agriculture, Tourism and Nature Conservation first introduced at the Polytechnic and later elsewhere, require an explanation. The then PS Ankama argued that the Polytechnic should not offer any kind of courses which could be offered by UNAM. Interestingly, degree programmes in English, Communication and Entrepreneurship are not offered anywhere else in Namibia. The huge interest and over-subscription of our programmes are however proof of their market relevance and the social needs. And correctly so, these programmes aim at closing a gaping hole in the English and Communication proficiency of teachers and instructors, for example, and to create new entrepreneurs for our economy.

PF: The Polytechnic has been recognised for several years since 2002 as the ‘best’ tertiary education institution in Namibia. So in what sense is the Polytechnic ‘best’?

TT: At times I wonder whether these acknowledgements are a curse or a blessing, for instance the 2009 Diamond Arrow Awards, or the recognition received from the respondents of the Independent Opinion Survey, commissioned by Old Mutual and the Stock Exchange. Whereas others brag in newspapers about their temporary position on an insignificant (because popularity oriented) web-based university ranking (4ICU), they feel utterly and unduly threatened when the Polytechnic posts the outcomes of an independent opinion poll on our website. There are obviously two measures applied. If the one takes his liberty of getting mileage out of an impression held by third parties, the same marketing strategy should be welcomed and accepted if it has been used by a ‘competitor’. But of course the question in what sense the Polytechnic is ‘best’ is about the criteria applied. Honi soit qui mal y pense – and it comes with a sense of frivolous provocation if I assert that the independent opinion poll does not measure anything else but impression management: Among the Namibian citizens, the Polytechnic has the best impression management. On a more serious note, I am convinced that we meet a number of quality benchmarks highly valued by important players in the Namibian environment. Such benchmarks are indications of the market relevance of our qualifications, responsiveness regarding emerging needs for specific educational offers, absence of apparent corruption, etc.

PF: What kind of education system will Namibians inherit by 2030; are we making headway towards our national Vision 2030?

TT: From my perspective, this is an extremely painful question, because I wish we could have done so much more, and could do so much more. As a nation, and at independence, we did not have a notion of how to achieve what had become so obvious then, that is, the education system needed a complete overhaul. More then 10 years thereafter, we realised that our policies did not take effect, that our pupils, although equipped nominally with numeracy and literacy skills, remained largely functionally illiterate. I appreciate the efforts associated with the Education and Training Sector Improvement Programme (ETSIP), because they intend to address the perpetuating shortcomings of the system. But at the same time, it seems we do not find the right balance between the ambitions of competing portfolios and education in the budget.

We have to ensure that our intangible capital production is increasing exponentially. This can only happen if we double; triple and more radically increase the tertiary enrolment rate in Namibia. It is a well-known fact that intangible capital is the key asset in the generation of well-being. A careful analysis of available indicators in the social, political and economic environments suggests that globally, investing in knowledge production, innovation and entrepreneurship, societies have better chances of either staying or becoming competitive economically, and thereby steadily improving the standard of living of their citizens. It is in this light that Namibia as a nation has to prepare the ground for development, which eventually must place Namibia among the nations which have the means to make choices instead of falling back into the throes of history and processes beyond her control. If Namibia were to achieve its Vision 2030, it must place a higher premium on the production of intangible capital.

PF: Two Trade Unions, NANTU and NAPWU, are representing the academic and administrative staff in negotiations with UNAM Management. Why have you “refused” Freedom of Association at the Polytechnic?

TT: Honestly, this is a strong allegation, and one which has little if anything to do with our realities. Historically and sociologically, the emergence of Trade Unions has been a milestone in the development of humane working conditions and more equitable employer-employee relationships. It is therefore a good thing that Polytechnic Management and Council have always been receptive to the idea of union representation of employees. Ideally, through the workplace union representatives in particular, the decision-making process by Management becomes more inclusive, better informed about relevant aspects, and reaches thus higher levels of adequateness, equitability and fairness. The fact that there is currently no trade union recognised in terms of the Labour Act, and that there are also no workplace representatives is not a fault of the Polytechnic. The applications lodged so far with Management have not met the legal requirements, and also their elections of workplace representatives have not been in line with the regulations of the Labour Act. The onus is on the trade unions desirous to be recognised to correct mistakes made in the past.

PF: We have learned that there is a constant flow of faculty from Polytechnic to UNAM. If that is so, how can you explain this phenomenon?

TT: Interestingly there is a flow from and to each of the two institutions, and this is normal for an academic environment, or the larger economy. But admittedly, it is not significant. In any case, this has to do with the utilitarian nature of human beings. Generally, remuneration packages at UNAM have been better than at Polytechnic simply because of inequitable funding. The Polytechnic has been, and still is, seriously underfunded as per the Funding Formula document. Following the adoption of an equitable funding formula for tertiary institutions in Namibia by government, we shall review our financial model make the necessary adjustments with respect to staffing, infrastructure, etc. In terms of quality of academic life, I am not convinced that a difference between the institutions explains the differential. Academic life comes with freedoms, and freedoms come with responsibilities, which need to be accounted for. Lack of accountability is a major impediment in the development; it is the perfect road map to corruption and so forth. At the Polytechnic we invoke accountability wherever it is required.

This gives individuals less lee-way to do just as they want, and this creates an impression of imposed conditions, in particular if there is a tangible impression that other institutions actuate less accountability; from there the notion of “high school headmaster” and the like. But hey, this is the reason why we have been rated by independent organisations as the “best” institution of tertiary learning in the country, because our accountability channels are operative and money usually isn’t draining into bottomless pits.

PF: There seems to be competition between UNAM and Polytechnic yet these are institutions that should be complementing each other rather than competing?

TT: Well, competition of ideas, systems, etc. is the motor for development. If there were no competition, we would probably still be hunter-gatherers competing at different levels and in a different system. This in itself is not a deficiency as I have pointed out in my paper “The Concept of Progress in Different Cultures” (2004). But in Namibia we have subscribed to a specific notion of progress towards realisation of our Vision 2030. This implies competition, preferably a healthy one. But the Polytechnic and UNAM are complementary by nature of their relation to utility, although some people don’t see it like that unfortunately. Let me explain:

Universities of Science and Technology are complementary to ‘classical’ Universities, in that the former have economic advancement as their goal. Generally, science and liberal arts students coming out of ‘classical’ Universities are skilled in science and intellectual inquiry. In turn, graduates from Universities of Science and Technology come out with honed knowledge and skills in developing technology, and applying skills in doing budgets, drafting strategic plans, and managing people (and problems), for instance.

Clearly, countries and economies need both types of Universities, and each has a place in its own spectrum of educational requirements. Whereas the ‘classical’ University remains the manufacturer and repository of the all-encompassing idea and philosophical thought, transcending spatio-temporal boundaries, without which a modern society would have no orientation, the University of Science and Technology directs the critical, creative and imaginary resources at her disposition to be applied in ways which benefit society and economy more directly. This is where the modern world is going. Unfortunately, at the Polytechnic what we do - as per our mandate and national needs - is perceived by some people as competition. That is a very sad occurrence! I would not describe every competition as necessarily unhealthy, for others improve because we exist. Yet, it would help if government would recognise this as a fact and press on for the name change and, commensurate with it, the implementation of the funding formula for tertiary education.

PF: Examination based assessment versus continuous and diversified assessment paradigm, what is your position? There are claims that some students have their assignment done by so-called “ghost writers.”

TT: This is unfortunate, and we are addressing the issue administratively and legally; but as long as it is kept to a minimum, it does not invalidate the system of diversified and continuous assessment.
We may not forget that some students may have cheated as long as there was performance appraisal, or unpreparedness, in any system. Thus the phenomenon does not call for a return to a purely examination-based system, which comes with its own limitations. We need a balance, and what is required is that professors keep the formulation of their assignments unique, individual and outside established routines. Then the employment of even the skilful and knowledgeable “ghost writer” becomes prohibitively expensive. It is also imperative that the professor has an authentic piece of performance of each student, for instance an in-class performance, against which the performance of a ghost scribe would stand out. In summary, we have a mixed system at the Polytechnic of Namibia and we’re gradually improving it

PF: The region (SADC) faces a seemingly never abating skills crisis; Namibia does not make an exception. Where does the Polytechnic come in here?

TT: Yes, indeed, the whole world is facing a skills crisis, and within our limitations of resources, etc. we address the skills deficit as best we can. Teaching, Learning and Assessment (TLA) are components of an integrated triad. The choice of an assessment paradigm informs the learning process, and in concurrence with it, didactical and methodological approaches to teaching. Actually, examination based systems are primarily validating previous learning. This does not necessarily mean that examinations have a focus on contentual knowledge; there are numerous examples out there demonstrating that skills, competences and contentual knowledge can be assessed through examinations. Historically and regionally however, education from primary through tertiary education laid the emphasis on the acquisition of contentual knowledge, both inside and outside the classroom. There was no time for facilitation of higher order cognitive skills and competences, like analysis, critique, synthesis/creation etc; at least not at undergraduate level. Since such was not on offer, institutions applied some sort of self-restraint and did not expect students to demonstrate these skills and competences in examinations. If they had, without offering the development of such faculties under the supervision and the responsibility of the institution, they would have become no more than assessment/validation stations for skills and competences, a student would have been expected to acquire elsewhere, in any event outside his alma mater.

However, our environment of relevance, i.e. increasingly the ‘global village’, requires more than contentual knowledge. What a graduate of today has to demonstrate are the above mentioned higher order cognitive skills. In order to meet those expectations we have to progress towards a TLA paradigm, which offers more than learning knowledge. Here the Polytechnic comes in with applied learning mechanisms, such as in-service training, and projects and programmes like Entrepreneurship training (Pro-Academy), where students learn from hands-on involvement.

PF: Presidents have two terms; do you think there should be a maximum number of terms for University leaders? You are on your fourth term already.

TT: As human beings we often tend to think that we are indispensable, but we are not. At any odd moment of pensiveness we admit to ourselves that there is a time for everyone to go. For a leader the time has come if he or she is not an inspiration to others anymore. Every leader will be able to judge this for him/herself. In the final analysis, this is for the Governing Board to assess and to decide when it comes to retention and reappointment. Our board, the Polytechnic Council, consists of representatives from various constituencies, with a strong representation of professional bodies and industry. They are mature, critical citizens, and so far the Council is satisfied with my delivery as Chief Academic and Administrative Officer of the Polytechnic. This is in line with my own perception. Notwithstanding, I would not hesitate to leave my position when my term ends and either the Council wants a change or I’m no longer interested to serve.

With regard to the comparison with Presidents, I am not so sure; it’s a different, for the limits of power and influence are dissimilar.

I prefer to compare a University Vice-Chancellor or Rector with an entrepreneur. An entrepreneur will stay successful for as long his/her ideas and inspirations penetrate the market and are subsequently transformed from being innovations into every day products. Look at Mr. Harold Pupkewitz for instance. As a nonagenarian citizen he is still inspiring the business world. And judging alone from the overwhelming response any of our new academic products receives from society; the Polytechnic continues to be inspiring.

PF: A new Minister has been put in charge of the education system. What do you think will happen next? What is your advice to Minister Iyambo?

TT: He has been hailed in some circles as the one who would be able to successfully deal with the dire situation in education. If we consider how Honourable Iyambo has tackled the most difficult issues in the fishing industry, we may have great hopes. Some might want to argue that he has been an expert in another field. But although he is not an educationalist, he went through the paces of his own university education, and has a practical conception of the challenges we face. At the political level of government it is most often the quality of social faculties, emotional intelligence, mediation skills, etc. which make a person a tie-breaker. It has become obvious that the new man brings much of all this to the table. My professional advice has been noted elsewhere, and is available. Otherwise, I stay with my advice as before: Education is one of the most challenging fields and can make or break someone. Have a great vision and remain steadfast in your actions. But I think this is common sense if one would like to provide an environment which allows longitudinal planning and certainty of expectations.

PF: Dr. Tjivikua, thank you for this interview, thank you for your time!

TT: Thank you for this prime opportunity to bring on some aspects about the Polytechnic of Namibia and the context in which it operates. There is a difference between what is commonly known about the Polytechnic, how the Polytechnic is being perceived in the eye of the public, and on the other hand, the larger picture in which tertiary education should be located. The latter, nonetheless, extremely important for our national development in an ever more globalising economy, usually escapes our day-to-day focus. Interviews like this one are an important tool in correcting of at times deeply entrenched prejudices. Opuuo. PF