4 January 2013

Namibia: He Said 'Let There Be a University, and There Was a University'


At last common sense has prevailed.

The Polytechnic of Namibia has got what it wanted - a name change. It's now being called the University of Science and Technology. It looks like all the arguments against the name change came tumbling down like a deck of cards. It has been a long wait for those who were calling for a name change, including this writer through a series of opinion pieces. But there we are. There is now a new kid in town, as they would say.

However, some might ask, what's in a name? I would say everything. Ask any high school student as to what he or she would like to do after graduating and the answer would almost invariably be: I want to go to a university. We have been socialised that way. But, of course, not all of us end up at a university, but some at colleges and at this dying species called a polytechnic. But I think the notion of a university enriches our language, our discourse and it appeals to human richness and experience.

So, how are we to think, or supposed to think, of the institution of the university in which some 'find' themselves in? The notion of 'finding oneself' is important because it is linked to the whole idea of a university as a place for self-actualisation and liberation. Human beings strive for autonomy, for self-knowledge that will free them from the chains of the past, from their debts to a nature and to a language that is not of their own making.

But I think that looking at a university's role and mission from that perspective - the perspective of the 'self' is to become too narrow and individualistic in focus - call it self-centred. Thus those few lucky ones at our institutions of higher learning should see themselves as 'foot-soldiers' for the broader society. They have to put their knowledge at the service of society instead of thinking about what car they are going to drive once they have graduated.

This idea of wanting to give back to society should be instilled by faculty from day one, and, of course, by the students themselves as they develop intellectually over the years. I know that Dr Tjama Tjivikua as an executive and a bureaucratic administrator has been moving effortlessly from one function to the other - in simple terms he has been a judge, synthesiser and a fundraiser. Thus Tjivikua and his team have over the years been trying to develop what I would call the technological idea of excellence. And the Poly has received many accolades over the years. Which is fine and to be applauded. And yes, the Poly received a new identity with the name change. But that's not enough. Personally I get a sense of disconnect between our institutions of higher learning and the broader public out there.

Some would call this the problem of the ivory tower. For me the problem of 'ivory towerism' has to do with academics who are immersed in their studies and research and thus have no time for interaction with people beyond the confines/boundaries of the university.

But I don't think that is the case here. For me it is a class issue. I'm trying to imagine if a lecturer or professor at either Unam, IUM [International University of Management] or the Poly would go, say, to Herero Mall to eat okapana there. There is a sense of elitism at work. But that is at the personal level. The scholar, Dominick La Capra, argues that "scholars/teachers should seek out research problems that raise questions for individuals and groups in our society".

Thus we need to recognise that de-referentialisation of the university's function opens up a space in which we can or should think about the notions of community and communication differently. Here we have to think of not only how the university can open up that space but also in terms of how it can serve or be at the service of the developmental state which Namibia aspires to be. Thus the university in developmental terms is seen as a crucial source for the training of the person-power needs of the country.

This function is more crucial in a country like Namibia that lacks a 'modernising elite'. Thus, the university has to fill that function. As Seymour Lipset has argued, "Lacking an indigenous bourgeoisie, African countries are forced to rely on the products of the university in spearheading development efforts".

Don't get me wrong because I don't want to get trap into the 'diploma disease' here - the view that those with degrees can do a better job than those without. Because intellectuals are not necessarily people with degrees but can come from different walks of life. Without being 'in your face', all I'm saying is that universities have to work with the people and not for the people. Thus our institutions, if they are to be relevant and consonant with their environment, have to be of greater service to our society. They are doing that. But as we enter the New Year, there is always that need for self-introspection, reflection and, if need be, re-orientation.

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