17 October 2017

Namibia: Why Fund Higher Education? Who Gets What, When and Why?

opinion

WHY is society or, in bureaucratic-speak, 'taxpayers' money' spent on an exercise that seems so expensive?

And following on that rhetorical question: education for what? In this piece I will argue from two conceptual levels - at the existential and functional levels.

First, education is definitely one of the principal means available to foster a deeper and more harmonious form of human progress and development, which helps to reduce issues such as ignorance, social, political and economic exclusion and poverty. As the saying goes: education is the greatest equaliser.

At the functional level, there is that recognition of the powerful evidence that the general level of education in a country, its human capital, matters in determining a path to economic development.

Take, as an example, a city state like Singapore that has no natural resources to speak of and see where it is in terms of its social, economic and technological level of development and juxtapose that with many African countries which are endowed with abundant natural resources.

The point here is that you cannot have a knowledge economy unless you have a knowledge society. That is why it is so crucial that African governments must fund education if they want their countries to be where the so-called developed countries are today - especially what used to be referred to as the Asian Tigers.

We say 'so-called' because countries don't stop developing. All countries are just at different levels of economic and technological development. But the point or indeed the challenge, is: how can Namibia and other African countries catch up with the others if they do not seriously commit themselves to an unwavering commitment to funding public education at all levels?

It is now widely recognised that training and education contribute directly to economic growth through its effects on productivity, earnings, job mobility, entrepreneurial skills and technological innovation.

Thus, in light of this affirmation of faith in education as a catalyst in the development of a society and country at large, I think it is time we put our money where our mouth is.

But let me add a caveat here: that it does not help to produce large numbers of unemployed graduates whose only option due to absence of jobs is to engage in rent-seeking activities which in the end undermine both the essence of the human capital investment made, and job creation to be associated with human capital skills which then lead educated people to migrate elsewhere in search of greener pastures especially to the West and North America - the so-called brain drain phenomenon.

If taken as important for the sustained development of our country, how then should higher education be funded against competing demands for access and resources for other development goals? Those concerns notwithstanding, the minister of higher education, Itah Kandjii-Murangi, has given assurance that despite the ongoing economic challenges, government is committed to providing appropriate funding to public universities in the country.

This has generated interest in the funding models that can work, how and why? This article serves to discuss, in broad strokes, the merits and challenges of the dominant models of higher education funding in Namibia, setting out in an intertwined manner the economic and moral considerations, and their implication for access and quality.

Academics in the country have over the years complained about the funding accorded to public universities by government. Some have complained about under-funding or unfair/unequal funding.

Tjama Tjivikua, the Namibia University of Science and Technology vice-chancellor, for example, recently said: "I will continuously appeal to government for our fair share of (appropriate) funding until justice is served. Our legacy will only be preserved once we overcome this great economic challenge."

Government then started to come up with a new formula to address some of those concerns. Thus the new framework for funding of tertiary institutions which is meant to create a transparent allocation of resources was a response to academic institutions' outcry.

That came after reports that questioned the uneven funding of higher education institutions especially the discrepancies between the funding of the University of Namibia (Unam) and that of the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST).

The main objectives of the funding framework were to be an important planning tool for the entire higher education system, to impact positively on predictability, equity and efficiency in the higher education funding process, to subject institutional budget submissions to systematic assessment, and to monitor the utilisation of resources by public institutions.

But this, in my view, seems to be a monitoring and evaluation process. What then is the funding formula? Skimming through the various documents of the ministry of higher education one gets a hotchpotch of criteria about the funding issue.

The purpose of the funding framework is not necessarily to give equal funding but to promote equity. According to the funding formula, institutions are funded based on the number of credits they are offering and not on the number of students, meaning the funding is allocated according to the worth of subjects that are taken by a student.

Operational cost is the total cost of credits in all subjects under the higher education programmes offered by the institution. The cost per credit is standardised for both Unam and NUST. But are they? Are the institutions happy with the current level of funding?

We are told that "A government subsidy is intended to complement a public higher education institution's own income. Such subsidies are determined by calculating the difference between an institution's own resources and its operational costs calculated using the cost per credit unit as the basis."

I think there is a danger in this type of argument. The opposite should be true: an institution's own resources/income should complement government funding. Otherwise one would transfer the burden to students who would be required to pay higher tuition fees and, secondly, the standard of the university itself would be compromised.

As an example, I attended the American University in Cairo, is a private institution, but it has mobilised a number of major private donors. But the private sector in this country seems to be missing in action. What happened to the so-called PPP, because, after-all, most of the graduates from these institutions end up working in the private sector?

In the end, the state will have to play a key role in terms of both setting up functional regulatory frameworks to safeguard quality, and to support university access through greater funding in order to strengthen equality of opportunity and equality of outcome.

Namibia

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