With the full transformation of the former Polytechnic of Namibia being completed giving the country its second state owned fully fledged university, Prime Focus Managing Editor Tiri Masawi (TM ) sits down with the man credited for steering the former polytechnic to a university Tjama Tjivikua. In his own words Professor Tjivikua still envisages further growth of the university and wants it to be one of the top performing institutions not only in Namibia but the Southern African region and the continent at large. The following is a full transcript of the in-depth interview focusing on the targets for the university, changes in the tertiary education sector and the way forward in creating a knowledge-based economy.
TM: NUST is now a fully-fledged university producing graduates that are sorely needed by industry. How would you describe the transformation of the institution from a Polytechnic to a University?
Tjivikua: Change is effort, and the greater the effort, the greater the change. Indeed, and serendipitously, in that effort, the hardest tasks often bear the most rewarding experience. Changing is the only way we can stay relevant, because change is a ‘human condition’ or fate from which we cannot run away.
The Polytechnic’s transformation was an unrelenting process from early on, and is still continuing. So we’re settling in well into our new mandate because the foundations for it have been suitably formulated and laid. Indeed, the transformation and new name have given us the recognition and standing we deserve.
Today, the following achievements are testimony to our evolution:
institutional culture - from college to university, from laissez faire leadership and management to proactive leadership and management;
a 600 percent growth in enrolment, from about 2 000 to 13 000;
the evolution of National Diplomas into Bachelor’s degrees (since 1999), and the design and offering of Master’s (since 2005) and Doctoral degrees (since 2015);
the rise and growth of the STEM disciplines (i.e. science, technology, engineering and mathematics) - from 10% of total offered in 1996 to about 70% in 2015; NUST is the nation’s oldest engineering school (since in 1997);
growth in research - from no peer-reviewed publications to international recognition of our scholars;
tremendous growth in the campus footprint (from three to 15 hectares) and asset base (from N$ 27 million in 1996 to N$1.3 billion in 2015 - nearly a growth factor of 50);
a footprint across Namibia through regional centres and a satellite campus under construction;
and extensive stakeholder engagement - especially through the Faculties and the centres and institutes of excellence;
innovation becoming an entrenched culture and trademark of the University - having established the first national centres for energy, entrepreneurship, innovation and design, including the Fablab;
excellence as a benchmark of the University - strong reputation through local and international awards; and
a high profile of international engagements and partnerships resulting in exchanges and research funding.
This is real progress and Namibia is surely better primed to undergo socio-economic transformation.
TM: You were instrumental in making sure that this process is successful. Do you feel that the country is now in a better place with two state universities?
Tjivikua: Namibia gained her political independence at the dawn of what is known as the knowledge-based era. If Namibia were to thrive, it has to catch on and rapidly move into this era - an era which is driven by science and technology, whether it be in education, economy or politics. My vision to transform the polytechnic to a university of science and technology was founded in that very conviction and very early on.
All over the world, schools, institutes, colleges and polytechnics have evolved into universities. In the Commonwealth States, this trend has over the past 20 years or so seen many vocational training centres, institutes, polytechnics/technikons and colleges taking on new mandates as universities with varied flairs and flavours. The gap existing in technological education in those countries is being filled by the new-generation universities.
The same can be said about Namibia. We need a technological university (which is NUST) just as we need a traditional or general university, like the University of Namibia (UNAM). Given equitable and appropriate support and respect to both, the two are indeed complementary. There’s no need to compete for the sake of competition. As a matter of fact, in complementarity there lies a new perspective of many opportunities for competitiveness. That is the reason why we have pushed hard for the realisation of NUST; progress and development do not wait for you, you must create them.
TM: Other quarters in society seem to feel that the full transformation into NUST created a vacuum in the education system as the country now does not have a single polytechnic institution focusing on producing artisans. What is your take on that?
Tjivikua: The Polytechnic of Namibia did not carry a mandate to produce artisans, except through the short-lived and transitional custody or caretaker function for vocational qualifications (1996 - 1997) of the now long-defunct College for Out-of-School Training (COST). The Polytechnic has always carried a mandate for tertiary or higher education, ranging from certificates to degrees, service to society as well as applied research.
So adopting the university classification or nomenclature is appropriate to our development as a nation. The question we should ask is, is it better for Namibia to have a polytechnic rather than a technological university, knowing that the former has a limited mandate and is constrained by perceptions and thus in what it can or should do.
C. Wright Mills, a renowned sociologist, once upon a time said: “You can only be trained in what is already known.” The underlying problem of the Polytechnic was exactly this notion of training which linked itself to the “post-secondary” education it was mandated with. It was meant to receive “knowledge” from elsewhere, passively, and uncritically; only in this case it would not be the knowledge of the coloniser any longer.
For Namibia to shake off the shackles of the past, and to embrace the already unfolding knowledge era, it had become important to instill and fuel in the student the inquisitiveness, which brings about serendipity, and for that matter, the capacities to be a lifelong learner and creator of knowledge. Being critical towards the taken-for-granted approach, which lies in traditional views about knowledge, thrives best if the system provides the vertical growth opportunities of universities.
The vacuum which some say has been created in the process was not caused by the transformation of the polytechnic. Not forming part of the polytechnic mandate, artisan training had to be catered for in other ways. Hence in reality, the said vacuum grew out of the fact that that space has no major, prominent or effective player. Indeed, this issue is addressed in the higher education landscape study of 2012, which proposed the creation of colleges to cater for the ‘blind spot’ between high school and university.
The envisaged colleges will fill a huge vacuum in our society, but unfortunately this recommendation is not yet being pursued by the government for lack of resources, or because of other factors, I presume.
TM: Where do you see NUST as a university five years from now?
Tjivikua: Under my leadership, much work has been done for NUST to feature as a respectable or excellent university. In general, it is viewed as such by other institutions in the SADC region and beyond, and there is abundant evidence in this regard. Henceforth, we must maintain the momentum and grow in every respect. Under the same leadership and ethos, and with the right support, especially from government, NUST will rise to the occasion and deliver the best results.
TM: Where do you rate the institution regionally in terms of producing the best quality graduates?
Tjivikua: NUST is already renowned for breaking new grounds and for offering what was not offered in Namibia and in the region before. And we produce graduates who are better prepared for the workplace. We have partnered extensively with various universities and institutions globally and are actively pursuing the common goals. Popular opinion and the goodwill are definitely on our side and this shows in many ways. We are confident to say that NUST is a rated and respected university. This is evident in our extensive and proactive engagement with society as well as the African university rankings and the many global and local awards we have earned.
Many students from the SADC region, as well as from other parts of the world, especially Europe, have studied at, or graduated from, the Polytechnic and NUST. We have exchanged staff and students and have collaborated with other universities and research institutions globally in teaching and research. These are benchmarks of quality. People don’t just come to us, they seek or follow quality.
TM: While you are growing as an institution, you are also growing in terms of enrolment. Do you feel you are adequately financed to operate as all the other universities worldwide?
Tjivikua: I have said it many times before and I’ll say it again. The Polytechnic was, and NUST is, terribly under-resourced; in short we have endured this predicament for too long. This is so in spite of our sterling performance record. A comparative study against other universities clearly shows that our students are getting the short end of the stick. And just when we expect better funding because of the new mandate, things turn for the worse: the national economy is not performing well and the picture in the near-term looks bleak. Unfortunately, funding doesn’t necessarily follow performance, thus promoting mediocrity and perpetuating an undesired state of affairs, that which we lament all the time.
You see, I believe that government must invest more in education or re-prioritise funding in education so that we can turn our fortunes around. It will take a long time before we educate the required number of citizens at the right levels. This requires a high-level and sustained investment, for uncertainty and instability weaken good systems and undermine great opportunities.
Mind you, education is not a panacea for all our challenges, but it is the best solution for our development when it teaches and skills the graduate at the right level.
Government must strengthen our technological university, for the combination of a good education, economic opportunity and the right ethic, is a precondition for a vibrant economy. We should reassess the national priorities and measure success properly by not only focusing on the inputs, but also the outputs. We have to have the right institutions and drivers and appropriate resourcing to drive performance.
TM: What is your view on those who believe university fees are rather too high and need a thorough relook?
Tjivikua: All over the world, university fees (tuition and fees) are an emotive or contentious issue. Partly that may be because many people don’t understand the ingredients of a curriculum, which is the framework for delivering a qualification. Think of administration (including paid time for planning and consultations); think of the material, equipment, infrastructure, utilities, and quality assurance - evaluation, validation and accreditation. These are the key factors in education delivery and they cost money.
The question is, who should finance, or as the case may be co-finance, university operations? If university fees payable by our clients, the students, have to finance a significant part of the university operations, as they currently do, there should be no generalization about “fees being too high.” Given the social demand and government expectations regarding enrolment targets, the institutional perspective considers that most of our students come from low-income backgrounds, and they are in dire need of financial assistance.
The debate about who should be able to study is a democratic exercise and there are many platforms for that. It is implicitly a debate about the equitable distribution of resources for social progression. If all those who meet the formal, but not the economic, requirements to study should be allowed access to universities, the Namibian society, the government, should provide either the assistance to the individual student, or fully finance its universities so as to enable them to operate without student fees.
Since there is no free higher education provided for in the Namibian constitution or any law, universities must charge relevant fees in order to provide quality education. And the fees are derived from actual costs and are benchmarked against other universities’. Therefore, saying “the fees are too high” without a reference point is not helpful, constructive or reasonable.
TM: What do you think are some of the challenges facing the Namibian education system and how do you feel they should be remedied?
Tjivikua: There is a myriad of challenges in Namibia’s education sector, such as poor delivery that causes under-preparedness, limited space versus increasing demand for access, affordability of education, lack of resources, inadequate infrastructure, employability of graduates, poor quality service, lack of adequately qualified professionals, competitiveness, and so on.
Relevant studies conducted since independence have recorded these to some extent. The latest of these - the review of higher education landscape in 2012 - educates us extensively on the challenges and solutions. It’s a pity that the recommendations are not being pursued in totality.
An inclusive, innovative approach of thinking - coupled with the infusion of resources - is needed if we want to remedy the situation, and time is not on our side.
TM: Sometimes availability of lecturers is a serious challenge to the Namibian universities. How are you ensuring that you also attract competent lecturers from the region?
Tjivikua: The university conforms to best practices in recruiting and appointing staff. Therein we ensure that qualified staff, preferably terminal degree holders, such as a doctorate, are at front-end of education delivery. Given our history of neglect, we often have to cross borders to bring in talent and that takes a lot of resources and time. But it’s the only way we can deliver the many programmes and qualifications. And this is a global practice.
We also invest significant resources in capacity building through staff development opportunities and scholarships to ‘build our own timber.’ In summary, I should say that running a university a very complex task that takes lots of resources (including time) and the scarce skills are not readily available. But we try our best.
TM: Would you say as an academic that you have achieved your set goals with the institution or do you still have ambitions to continue growing it to another level?
Tjivikua: I believe a visionary isn’t simply content with reaching a goal or a milestone. Everything in life is time-bound, but a visionary’s view is always expanding.
As for my service, I have achieved what I had set out to do. I have delivered NUST. But I wasn’t alone on that arduous journey. Many people within and outside the Institution have also worked hard and diligently for this common goal. And this is not an end in itself; if we drop it now, it will break. Growth still needs to happen in many areas and a smooth process will take the University to its rightful place - to greater heights. This is the critical issue to attend to right now and in the future. The University needs a cool mind and a steady hand to smoothen that growth and I shall serve as the circumstances dictate.
Thank you for the opportunity to reflect on the rise of Namibia University of Science and Technology and on higher education in general. I wish you and everyone a restful holiday!