The National University of Lesotho (NUL) has embarked on a massive restructuring exercise said to be the biggest in the institution’s 71-year history. But as revealed by the university’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Nqosa Mahao in an interview with Lesotho Times (LT) reporter, Lekhetho Ntsukunyane, this transformation comes at a time NUL is facing a myriad of challenges.
LT: We have heard a little about NUL’s transformation which the university has already embarked on. Please could you tell us more about this massive restructuring?
Mahao: We are doing what we call a 360-degrees transformation. In layman’s language, this means we are leaving no stone unturned. As soon as we came into office (2014), we developed a strategic plan. The 360-degrees transformation includes academic programmes, which are the core function of the university. It includes research work, the welfare of our first and most important clients – the students, and the welfare of the staff. It also includes the infrastructure in terms of facilities as well as other amenities the university needs to have. So there is no part of the university we have not looked into in terms of repositioning ourselves.
LT: But why this massive transformation now?
Mahao: Truly speaking, the National University of Lesotho has fallen way behind its peer institutions not just in the region, but in the world, so this transformation is aimed at reversing this trend. We have also dropped in terms of ranking. For instance, when I was a student at this university more than 30 years ago, it attracted academics from all over the world—North America, Europe and the rest of Africa. The university had high-calibre staff. It had students who came from all over the African continent. I suspect at one point, a quarter of our students were from outside this country. But at the moment, that number is less than 0.5 percent and we are unable to attract high calibre staff from elsewhere, and like I said, we are hoping the restructuring would address this situation.
LT: So basically, you are saying the university has declined in standards…
Mahao: Yes; take rankings, for instance. Sometimes I’m even afraid to look at them. But I’ll tell you that in 2015, on the African continent, we ranked 166. For a better picture, universities which broke from us, for instance the University of Swaziland, was ranked number 99, and the University of Botswana stood at number 44. You will observe that Botswana is almost 120 paces ahead of us on the African continent. At global level, we are the other side of 6000 in rankings. That tells you somewhere we slept when the rest of the world was moving on. And the reason why that is so, amongst others, is lack of visionary leadership, then aggravating the situation in a funny way is funding of this university which has been declining. Not staying in one place, but increasingly declining.
LT: So how do you hope to turn things around?
Mahao: You know, even when you have the best solutions but you don’t have resources, it is very difficult for you to achieve what you intend to do. Be that as it may, the strategic plan we adopted in 2015 has identified some of the areas where we need to up the ante and we have started this. I must say before this plan, there was a plan which was adopted in 2002 but later aborted. And then there was a subsequent one in 2007, which was never implemented. And so one of the things we were so particularly conscious about was that to have a plan is one thing, but to implement it is yet another.
LT: You have earlier said the current transformation targets all areas of the university. Could you please give us details of the transformation in individual areas?
Mahao: In the area of academia, the previous administration had suspended postgraduate programmes, which is another reason why our ranking dropped. We have lifted the suspension and those programmes, Master’s and Doctoral, are now running in different faculties. The aim is that presently, we have about 230 postgraduate students and by 2020, we must have a fair percentage of our student-enrolment registered in postgraduate programmes. And as we do so, part of the driving motive is we should not be spending money to train people in South Africa and elsewhere, but locally where costs on the taxpayer are going to be significantly low. That’s the idea – to intervene in the economy of the country. The other issue is all faculties have been called upon to review their existing programmes, discard programmes that are no longer relevant and introduce new programmes. And in doing so, we are guided by the National Development Strategic Plan because that plan says ‘these are the needs for this country.’ What we need to do is to align our programmes to the National Development Strategic Plan.
LT: Was there a specific reason why the previous management suspended these programmes?
Mahao: They said they were restructuring, but I don’t know what that meant and I don’t want to dwell on it. But anybody who has an understanding of higher education – there are certain things that you don’t do. And that is the one thing (suspension) they shouldn’t have done. We are also quite aware that higher education in Lesotho is underdeveloped. It is as if we were not the first country below the equator, outside South Africa and Rhodesia, with a university prior to independence. But we have fallen behind every country below the equator in terms of provision for higher education. As a result, and this might annoy many people, presently Basotho are the most uneducated nation in southern Africa. And yet the hunger for higher education in Lesotho is so high. We seek to double our enrolment by 2020. You may be aware that we came under terrible attack from certain quarters last year for our admission. This university is governed by the National University of Lesotho Act, and that law says the University Senate determines the enrolment, nobody else. As management, we implement decisions taken by Senate. For now the Senate has approved that going to 2020 we should have doubled the enrolment. It is for us now to grow our intakes annually so that we can reach that target.
LT: What is NUL’s total student enrolment at the moment?
Mahao: It is just under 10 000. This includes part-time studies at the Institute of Extra Mural Studies (IEMS) Maseru campus. We are doing this conscious of the fact that the enrolment should go hand-in-hand with the transformation of programmes so that we provide increasingly in the areas of economic development. For example, we are putting a cap in intake in areas of Humanity and Social Sciences in order to allow for growth in Life Science, Engineering, Technology, Agriculture and Health Sciences. The second mode by which we are responding to access and hunger for higher education is that by 2017, we will be offering what is called Open and Distance Learning. That is to say anybody who wants to study but cannot come to classes on a fulltime basis could just sit in his or her office, or at home and study through this Open and Distance Learning. We are recapitalizing our infrastructure at IEMS so that it is able to provide for that mode of learning. Policy has already been approved in that regard.
The final leg of transformation in the academic sector is that the University Council has approved the reorganization of faculties. We had seven faculties. Council has approved that we reorganize them into four, namely Science, Engineering and Technology; Life Sciences, which will include the present faculties of Agriculture, Health Sciences and also house the currently controversial Medical School following talks that are underway to adopt it. The third faculty is Human Science, which will accommodate Education, Social Sciences and Humanities. The final faculty is Business, Economics and Law. We will have the Institute of Distance and Continuing Studies, which is the present IEMS. But it assumes a bigger mandate now. Secondly, that institute will have the mandate to take any practical programmes offered in the main campus and offer them on a part-time basis. The other element will be professional continuing studies, where we will be providing Executive Education aimed at retooling people at top management to sharpen their skills and competence so that they are relevant to today’s needs. Next week, we will be advertising the programmes for Executive Education. We are going to start offering the programmes in September this year at IEMS.
Again, two other institutes, which will run on a smaller scale, are also being developed. The first one is the Water Institute. In fact, on 22 June 2016, we shall be engaging with all stakeholders in the water sector to discuss the concept that has been developed. We hope the Water Institute will be running before the end of this year. The reason we are introducing this institute is simply that we don’t have gold in our country, but we have water. Water is in demand. The recent drought has just demonstrated how critical, going to the future, water is the strategic course. But as a country, we don’t have the capacity, whatsoever, that bears on the entire value-chain of water – from water engineering, management, economics, et cetera.
The other institute is the Moshoeshoe Institute of Leadership. That also is in the process of development. We have been working together with the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute to see what they are doing and borrowing some wisdom from them. But our institute will largely do research focused on the values that King Moshoeshoe I exuded. We seek to reposition ourselves as a unique institute on humanistic values of the Basotho founder. The two institutes will run from the main campus in Roma.
LT: Talk about other areas other than the academia.
Mahao: This university has not developed its infrastructure over the years. And I think where we have performed disastrously bad is in the area of Technology. In this age, which is different from when I was a student, technology is the most important tool of teaching, learning and research. What we are working on now is to grow Wi-Fi access on campus. We have just completed phase 1 of that Wi-Fi access. In terms of computers, we have managed to mobilise 250 new computers from various donors, mainly the Central Bank of Lesotho and Vodacom Lesotho and we are going to be receiving another fund from Nedbank Lesotho on 1 June 2016. This is to recapitalize our computer laboratories. We are going to have an internet café open 24 hours a day for students to access it free of charge. We are going to be working on putting technology into classrooms.
Coming to infrastructure, there are two critical issues. One is about student accommodation. On the main campus, we have about 8000 students. But our halls of residence, including those that are owned by the Roman Catholic Church, accommodate less than 2000 students. Over 6000 students live in the village. Amenities that are available in the village are not conducive to effective learning. There are also security challenges. Students get mugged, assaulted and burglary happens at their rental apartments. Because we have financial challenges, we have invited the private sector within and beyond the country to come and do business with us on the basis of Public Private Partnership. This is a model that other universities have explored and exploited effectively to meet their infrastructure needs. We have had good response from investors. We are just finalizing the appropriate legal tools so that we don’t get it wrong. The idea is that at least 50 percent of students should be accommodated on campus. The 360-degrees transformation is virtually important for this institution to improve its image because value is associated with image. Last year only, we lost about 300 students who were fully sponsored by the National Manpower Development Secretariat to study at NUL, but they didn’t come and we don’t know why. They just didn’t pitch up. They could have gone elsewhere where there is a good image. We are not the university of their first choice. You cannot underplay the way you look.
LT: You have talked about the issue of attracting foreign intellectuals and retaining your staff. How are you improving the staff welfare at NUL in line with this transformation?
Mahao: I’m sorry to say that again, the ball was dropped in terms of the level of funding for this institution. The result is that our salaries are not only the worst of any university in southern Africa, but they have also begun to fall way below government salaries. Not only are we losing staff to other universities, but we are also losing them to the government. This is an issue of major concern. I just don’t know how the staff here has continued to tolerate this kind of situation.
LT: Who determines staff salaries at NUL?
Mahao: The Council, but the resources come from elsewhere. Two years ago, a request was submitted to government to support with resources so that the university can begin to do something about salaries. Two years on that cry has not been heeded. Council has decided to send a delegation that we are hoping should be meeting with the Minister of Education very soon. This is to really convince government about the situation. You will understand that we may want to do all these good things but if we are losing professors; staff with PhD qualifications, by law you are not allowed to offer postgraduate programmes if you don’t have adequate staff with PhD qualifications. Last year, there was a six-percent salary increase for public servants. Again we went and knocked at government doors to say ‘can we be included’ but to no avail. Again this year salaries were increased by four-percent and we are excluded. And that is not because we didn’t request the increase repeatedly.
LT: When was the last time staff salaries were increased at NUL?
Mahao: The last time there was a salary review here was in 2005. And then after seven years the staff went on strike, across 2011/2012. You will remember the major strike that crippled the university that time. The government then helped to settle with the staff unions, but unfortunately the M20 million that was meant to cover for that year was not provided by the government the following year. One would expect that the government would maintain that in subsequent years, but that was not the case. We almost approve staff resignations every week, both academic and non-academic employees. So that you don’t think I’m making up stories here, I’ll show you this document which compares NUL staff salaries against that of the University of Swaziland in 2013. You will see here that a professor at NUL earned M373 668 per annum, while a junior lecturer, who is four levels below professor, earned M374 482 in Swaziland. So a professor can leave NUL and go and take a lecturer’s job in Swaziland but still earn better than a professor at NUL. This is just one example. And Swaziland has reviewed their salaries since then.