Building from ambivalence ...Kiangi’s educational triumph

Professor Geoffrey Kiangi (GK), former University of Namibia (Unam) Pro Vice Chancellor provides a wide spectrum of consultancy and related advisory services to Namibia’s education system. He has done the same to the international community. A professor of Engineering and Computer Science who also holds a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering, a Master’s Degree in Construction Engineering from Leeds University and a PhD from the same university specialising in Civil Engineering and Computer Science, Kiangi makes his first public statements this month since his ill-timed departure from Unam in 2006.

In this interview, Prof Kiangi reveals why he has been off the education radar yet still within its sights.

PF: Prof Kiangi, you seem to have retreated from the public scene since leaving Unam. How has been your journey?

GK: Yes, true. I retreated from the public scene. However, I do not work to seek public notice. I simply do my call of duty to the best of my ability, whether or not that has public attention. So even though I have been out of the public eye, I have been quite busy. My separation with Unam was quite unfortunate. It happened at a time when I was making major turn-around efforts for Unam. I was working on the third Five-Year Development Program of Unam, and was also consolidating all the academic policies into one document to be called Unam Academic Ordinances that would form a single source of information for academic staff. It would have been nice to see these initiatives through. After my departure from Unam, I focused my efforts to Triumphant College, which I established, and with the same vigour worked to develop it as a de jure higher-education institution.

PF: Triumphant College? Where does it find itself on the education system?

GK: To a great extent Triumphant College derives from Vision 2030, which identifies Education, Science and Technology, as one of its driving forces in achieving the national goals. If the people of Namibia are to develop and lead lives of dignity and fulfilment comparable to that in developed nations, as desired in Vision 2030, education, science and technology are of cardinal importance, especially with the emerging role of knowledge as a major driver of economic development.

Triumphant College was, therefore, established to contribute to this noble end in 2006 and was refocused to start offering tertiary level programmes in 2007. This was also done so that my experience in the education sector, as well as skills and international contacts I have developed over the years could still be used to benefit the community at large. The motto of Triumphant College is to educate for empowerment, enabling individuals to empower the nation. The Vision is to become a recognised key partner in the country and the region in training, skills development and research for social economic development.

The Mission is to use current technology, highly skilled staff and quality programmes to provide sought after graduates and services. Triumphant College is currently collaborating with more than about eight educational institutions to provide a wide range of programmes in commercial, managerial and engineering fields.

These include certificate, diploma, bachelor and master’s degrees in human resources, accounting, business, electrical engineering, electronics engineering, telecom engineering, construction engineering, travel and tourism, computer engineering and information technology, and law.

It is the intention of Triumphant College to develop and offer research degrees and have areas of excellence in research while collaborating with the industry in finding new solutions to technical problems, solutions which will impact the economic development of the country.

PF: How big is the institution?

GK: Henry David Thoreau, one of today’s most celebrated writers once wrote “Have you built your castles in the air? Good, that’s where they should be built. Now, go to work and build foundations under them.” At Triumphant College we realised that our vision and goals are high and we have to stretch to reach them. So we have been working hard. Currently, we have a total of about 800 students on formal courses and a further 200 in various short courses, giving a total of about 1000 students. These include students in Rundu and Katima Mulilo where the college has also opened branches.

PF: What do you describe as the success story of the college?

GK: We have collaboration with about eight international institutions and universities. This allows us to offer a wide range of high quality programmes as well as share in the resources and experience of these partner institutions. Over the period of our existence we have so far conducted four graduation ceremonies. While we consider these as significant milestones in our development, we do not think we have a success story to tell as yet in comparison to our vision. This will only happen when we have worked fully the foundations that link with the castles we have built high in the air – our vision and goals.

PF: You were at Unam as Pro Vice Chancellor. Examination based assessment versus continuous and diversified assessment paradigm, what is your position? There are claims that some students at Unam and Polytechnic have their assignments done by so-called “ghost writers.” Is this the same with your college?

GK: This is a question that besets trainers everywhere and at all times. What assessment method should be used to best measure knowledge and skills acquired? Can the selected method be well managed to avoid “ghost writers” as you indicated?

Continuous assessment tends to be a better measure of knowledge acquisition than just one final examination. This is because the candidate is evaluated over a longer period using a variety of assessment methods such as tests, assignments, oral presentations, laboratory or field reports, etc.

The problem with these is that they tend to be time consuming and perhaps prohibitive when the class size is large. For assignments, if not carefully framed it may be difficult to ascertain the originality of the work on the part of the student submitting them. Examinations are a poor method of measuring knowledge acquired because it is an assessment done only at one point in time.

For a variety of reasons, such as health, stress and panic the candidate may not reveal all the knowledge acquired. However, because examinations can be managed better, they tend to be used more for assessment. For examinations, the issue of “Ghost writers” is simply a question of good examination management.
At Triumphant College we have a variety of assessment methods depending on the qualification offered and the collaborating institutions we are working with. For our own exams, considering all factors above, our evaluation is 40% continuous assessment and 60% final exam. Continuous assessment includes tests, assignments and reports. For fields that need skill development we also assess candidates when they are doing practical work.

PF: What are the actual reforms needed to build effective and relevant educational and training systems for the sustainable development of Namibia?

GK: In my opinion, the reforms needed have been well documented in a book by the Ministry of Education titled “Education for All”, produced soon after independence as revolving around access, equity, relevance and quality. Within these four areas, the World Bank has assisted in developing the Education and Training Sector Improvement Program (ETSIP) that defines specific interventions in the holistic education enterprise in Namibia. ETSIP aims to align education with the demands of today’s knowledge economies. However, there are still some structural problems. If we take the example of Korea, which is considered a success story, at primary and secondary levels learners have 1200 hours of learning per year, while in Namibia learners have only about 900 hours.

In Korea, learners spend 14 years of school education before joining a university for a four-year degree. In Namibia the school education is only 12 years. If both aspects are considered, it means by the time of joining a university, the Korean student will have put 60% more hours of learning (or can we say 60% more knowledge) than the Namibian student. This is a large disparity that will surely affect the entry and exit competencies at university level. Additionally, for countries that have achieved a planned, focused and accelerated development, the education system has been fashioned to meet other policies of industrialisation, science, technology, research and development.

In Namibia, the education system’s main guiding instrument is only Vision 2030. These other higher-level policies to which education must feed need to be developed. A science and technology policy exists but more needs to be done to allow this to make a significant impact.

Vocational Education needs to be expanded as this provides highly needed skills in the production process of various products that Namibia has to produce to compete in the world market. The establishment of Namibia Training Authority (NTA) and the intended education levy augurs well with this requirement.

Higher education requires a guided research strategy that will ensure high-level research is conducted in areas meaningful to Namibian development.

A World Bank Document titled: Building the Foundations for a Knowledge Based Economy and Society- A Review of Tertiary Education in Namibia states that tertiary level education has failed “…to produce the number of specialists in critical areas where shortages exist; for its weak management; poor internal and external efficiency; poor quality of provision and the absence of quality assurance mechanism; lack of overall accountability; and lack of connection with Namibia’s real development needs.”

These are serious challenges, a bit overstated but nevertheless they show that the sector has problems. At least, the line ministry is busy addressing these issues.

PF: But do you think these training systems are tailored to meet the country’s real needs?

GK: The education system is a feeder to other higher level country policies. If Namibia is to develop, it needs to be competitive in the products it offers to the world. These are products for which the country has comparative advantage. Our niche areas have been identified in Vision 2030.

Next, what is needed is an aggressive export oriented strategy, coupled with an industrialisation policy on the areas of comparative advantage. From this, institutional framework is established that identifies all organs necessary to achieve desired results and a national research and development strategy well supported by Government and the private sector is defined, that resonates well with the Science and Technology Policy which is already developed. Concerted efforts are then made for the diversification of these policies.

With these instruments in place, it is easy to craft an education system that satisfies all these various facets of the economy in a synergistic manner.

PF: But why haven’t we taken advantage of the dynamism of our resources and population?

GK: True. Namibia is well endowed with abundant natural resources but has a fragile environment. Geographically, it is between South Africa and Angola; two big economies that form a good market. Internally, a small population widely spread in a big geographic area presents a real challenge. This means Namibia should put greater emphasis in science and technology as well as in industrialisation to produce quality products for the ready markets around. The education system, therefore, should be able to develop human resource capacity to meet these challenges. This link of education with science and technology, innovation and industrialisation still needs to be developed.

PF: You mention countries within the region. SADC equally faces a seemingly never abating skills crisis and Namibia does not make an exception. Where does your college come in here?

GK: This is a paradox; an oxymoron- a contradiction in terms. We always cry out that we have skills shortage, yet there are many graduates roaming the streets. I think the real question is whether or not we are producing graduates who have the relevant skills needed in the job market. This is why I am arguing for a synergy between the education system and other higher-level county policies.

We can learn from East Asian countries, often known as Asian Tigers, a miracle region with booming growth and declining poverty with Korea as the leader. From one of the poorest countries of the world with no natural resources, and where 75% of the country is mountainous, Korea is now regarded as one of the leaders in high technology exports. General Park Chung Hee who came to power in 1962 is considered the architect of modern Korea. His policies of a focused education system, industrialisation, capability building and investment in infrastructure, laid the foundation for modern development.

There were no unemployment problems because products of the school system were so trained as to fit in specific areas of targeted growth in technology, which created more employment as it expanded. Similar experiences can be said of Japan (with its effort of technology prospecting) and Singapore.

Our countries need similar efforts. For Triumphant College we focus our programmes in technology and commercial areas. We try to develop students who are innovative and capable of self employment by infusing entrepreneurial skills to be combined by the student’s specialty either in engineering (production sector) or in managerial fields (service industry).

PF: With the highest rates of population growth in the world, Africa is under considerable pressure in its efforts to achieve Education for All. Where do you think Namibia lies in this situation?

GK: The saying goes that “if education is expensive, try ignorance!” Indeed, ignorance is more expensive. For this reason, the Millennium Development Goal II is for all countries of the world to achieve universal primary education, ensuring that by 2015 children everywhere, boys and girls alike will be able to complete a full course of primary education.

This for Namibia is not a problem, and the country has almost met this requirement. The main challenge for Namibia, however, is to address the disparity in the quality of education between the rural and urban schools. Another challenge is the Grade 10 and 12 leavers who mainly because of lack of finances in the family fail to proceed to college levels. Government is offering bursaries but this is not enough. The United Kingdom operates a cost sharing system where the family covers a percentage of the fees proportional to how wealthy the family is. If this can be implemented in Namibia it can help stretch Government funding to support a bigger number of students. The Government should also provide subsidies for private colleges. This will allow private colleges to reduce fees to a level affordable to many, thereby widen access to education.

PF: How best can we take diversity of educational needs into consideration and offer a diversified supply?

GK: One of the characteristics of a “knowledge economy” and “learning societies” is that: gone are the days when one attends college for three or four years and expect that the knowledge acquired is sufficient for life-long term of work. Life-long learning is a reality in all areas of work today. Colleges can take advantage to diversify education supply by a combination of long and short term courses offered continuously during the working life of an employee. ICT also offers opportunities to provide online courses that may not require face-to-face teaching.

A number of students from different countries can learn together in “one” class, interacting and sharing ideas using a learning software facility like the “blackboard”. Students can also access a number of subscribed or free online materials for their learning, while lectures in geographically distant places can co-author course materials or co-teach a course. Triumphant College is currently developing such internet-based learning platforms for our students.

PF: What is your assessment of the cooperation between private institutions like yours and top ones such as Unam and Polytechnic?

GK: We collaborate quite widely with institutions outside Namibia. It has been difficult to collaborate with other institutions in Namibia. Even when I was at Unam efforts were made to collaborate with the Polytechnic and committees were set on that regard but there was little progress. Currently, however, we have a draft collaborative agreement with the International University of Management (IUM) which is still to be finalised. We have collaborative agreement with the Windhoek Vocational Training College which is working well, and also with the National Library. We will continue to seek such collaboration where there are symbiotic advantages. The greatest needs, however, is to allow for cross-crediting which will allow students to move from one institution to another recognising what they already learnt. This will need to be organised and enforced by the Ministry of Education for it to work. Another way would be to allow professional bodies and persons in various fields to come together, and bring all institutions that offer qualifications in that field then try to harmonise the qualifications and encourage networking within the institutions and with the industry.

PF: How best can businesses and services exploit their competitive edge in education in the wake of limited resources?

GK: Educational institutions, especially universities are by nature conservative. A recent survey showed that universities are the only type of organisations that have not significantly changed over the last 100 years. One of the reasons is that universities are public funded and generally do not have much competition for existence. Private colleges on the other hand have to apply business principles to exist. This, to some extent is healthy, as it provides a competitive edge and value for money. A dollar invested in a private institution will have to do a lot more.

PF: What then are the risks associated with this?

GK: The risk or challenge is that if a private college does not offer quality and value for money, the students will go elsewhere and the college will lose revenue. This risk becomes a major driving force for private colleges to do their best. While private institutions are increasingly becoming a common phenomenon in the higher education landscape world-wide, the greatest challenge for most, including Triumphant College, is to gain the confidence of all stakeholders. We are addressing this matter by ensuring that the College gains widest exposure on programmes offered and their quality.

PF: How do you define professionalism in education?

GK: Benjamin Disraeli, a former British Prime Minister once said “Universities are places of light…” This is true for all higher education institutions. As such these institutions are not just there to develop the academic acumen but also the entire person including honesty, integrity and sobriety.

One cannot pass to others that which you do not have. So professionalism in education, therefore, will mean passing knowledge to others, while displaying, and being an example in honesty, integrity and trustworthiness. Ethics are developed from these broad aspects to define the dos and don’ts. For example, one would be expected to be punctual in class, teach with earnest, mark fairly and genuinely work with impartiality to help students understand. At Triumphant College these have been developed into detailed policies that guide staff and students, including aspects like sexual harassment so we do not encounter much ethical problems.

PF: Prof, it would be unfair to close this interview without discussing your successes at Unam as Pro Vice Chancellor.

GK: Yes. Within the short time I served as Pro Vice Chancellor, I developed 12 new policies and revised 15 others. New ones included the Research Policy, ICT Policy, Policy on Academic Work-loads, etc. The Research Policy, for example, delineated various measures to allow Unam develop research agenda of international repute. It set out means to collaborate with best researchers around the world, and encouraged team work between senior and younger UNAM researchers.

The Policy also included the development of an industrial park where research ideas with economic potential are developed to the level of commercialisation and pass them on to entrepreneurs. This was to be done focusing on Namibia’s niche areas. The ICT Policy intended to leverage current development in this field to benefit teaching and learning, realising that ICT provides means to actively participate and avail opportunities that globalisation offers. It also intends to create capabilities for commercial software development at Unam, and at practical level pass these skills to Namibian ICT entrepreneurs for international commercial consumption. These are just few of the many ideas in the policies.

PF: After you were taken to court by Unam for “stealing” 12 computers from the institution, you resigned before a disciplinary hearing against you could be concluded. Was that a good idea? And did your departure mean the relationship had irretrievably broken down between you and the institution?

GK: I did not resign before the hearing was concluded. I appeared before the Unam hearing committee. A settlement was reached between me and the committee. As was mentioned in the press, the committee then decided that a letter should be written to the Prosecutor General to request that charges on me be withdrawn. With things having gone that far, it would not have been possible to work with the same people who raised the accusations, hence the statement that the “relationship had irretrievably broken down.” Despite this, the court case proceeded to a hearing where I was acquitted. The judgement indicated that procedures as per set policies were followed and the paper work for the transaction of purchasing the computers was done.
PF: Professor, thank you for your time and good luck in your education endeavours. PF