Professionalism is the buzzword for new LCE boss
The situation has been calm at the Lesotho College of Education (LCE) since the appointment of Dr Karabo Mokobocho-Mohlakoana as Rector in January this year. The teachers’ training college has been rocked by incessant strikes in the past with both students and staff protesting over a host of issues revolving around alleged mismanagement. Dr Mokobocho-Mohlakoana, who took over from Dr John Oliphant, speaks with Lesotho Times (LT) reporter, Lekhetho Ntsukunyane, about her vision for the college in this wide-ranging interview.
LT: The Lesotho College of Education has been in the news for the wrong reasons over recent years with strikes by both teachers and students the order of the day. How have you dealt with such challenges since you came into office at the beginning of this year?
Mokobocho-Mohlakoana: Since I came into office, there was only one threat of a strike from students because their funds had not been disbursed by the National Manpower Development Secretariat (NMDS). However, the strike did not happen and we haven’t had any staff strike either. First of all, challenges at any institution come in different forms. Obviously, management will plan and each issue will be dealt with on its merit. I am aware of those challenges.
LT: You say the workers have not gone on strike since you became Rector in January. Does that mean the workers are satisfied now?
Mokobocho-Mohlakoana: I have only been here three months. I don’t know if they are satisfied now or not. I wouldn’t answer that question for them. Personally, I believe three months is too short a time to conclude that there are no more strikes at LCE. And because there has been a change of management, people can have expectations and some hope. But I wouldn’t answer on behalf of the staff as to why there hasn’t been any strikes since January. However, I do hope and pray that if ever there are issues, we need to sit down together and talk about them so that we can reach amicable solutions. Strikes cannot give us the solutions we need. We need to have a platform to discuss whatever problems we might have. Constructive communication can solve whatever challenges we have. So I hope and pray that we communicate than for the staff and students to resort to strikes. I try us much as I can to engage the workers in regular talks. They should feel free to voice their concerns and ask questions where they need clarification. Problems will always be there, especially where people live together in larger numbers, but we should always strive to work things out together and in harmony.
LT: Two lecturers, who were also executive members of the Lesotho College of Education Staff Union (LECESU), were accused of leading the strikes and suspended last year. What’s the latest development about this issue? Have they been finally dismissed?
Mokobocho-Mohlakoana: I will not engage myself into that issue because it is currently being dealt with by the Directorate on Dispute Prevention and Resolution. It is a matter of the court and I wouldn’t want to interfere in it. You will realise that this matter was already in court when I came in. It is still pending there even now.
LT: The LCE was said to be in a financial crisis last year, which was one of the reasons there were strikes at the college. What’s the college’s financial situation now?
Mokobocho-Mohlakoana: We still have financial problems. I should mention that it is not only this institution that has financial problems. Monies disbursed to institutions by governments in the form of subventions, are never enough. As LCE, we would be happy to have someone or a company that can fund our operations. Resources are scarce even as we speak. I am trying all my best to overcome this challenge, but it seems at the end of the day, we are able to secure very little resources that are almost nothing. For instance, if the institution needs millions of maloti for its operations, and all you can secure is a few maloti, it’s as if you are doing nothing. Nonetheless, we still manage to pay some of our debts through this funding. But there are still huge outstanding debts which we are still faced with. The situation has not really changed from what was earlier announced by my predecessor concerning the college’s financial crisis.
LT: What initiatives have you put in place to generate funds?
Mokobocho-Mohlakoana: We started small projects that include agricultural production, rearing pigs, chickens et cetera. We recently even started extending and modifying our carpark for renting purposes, so that we can generate some more income. We are trying everything we believe can generate money for the institution. Some people might suggest that we build a shopping mall to generate a substantial income, but where are we going to get the money to build a mall? We don’t have capital for such a project. I sat down with the teams I am working with on this income-generating initiative and we agreed that our financial situation was really bad. Together we came up with ideas that could partly assist us in this situation. I cannot be the only one credited for the initiatives, it has been a collective effort.
LT: The Counsel on Higher Education (CHE) recently released a report titled, ‘The State of Higher Education Report of 2013/14’, which highlights the deteriorating admission rate at institutions. The report covers 14 institutions, LCE included. What can you say about this report?
Mokobocho-Mohlakoana: I am aware of the report. And if you read it carefully, you will even realise the actual figures indicating this decline. We have just talked about the issue of limited resources. You can have as many qualifying students as you can, but if the resources that you have cannot enable you to give them quality education, then it becomes useless to admit them. But as for LCE, our admission rate has not declined. What is factual is we have not been able to admit all qualifying students because of the meagre resources we have. Classrooms are not enough. We would also have to increase lecturers. We have hostels we wish could accommodate all our students. We have a challenge of students who have to rush home immediately after classes because they stay far away from the college. These students cannot access other materials to assist them in their learning once they leave the college premises. And the expectation, considering the modern ways of study, is they should access learning materials, including Wi-Fi for internet access, to keep learning even outside the classroom. But unfortunately they go home where there is no library and Wi-Fi. The situation could even be worse at home because we don’t even know whether there is electricity or enough light for them to do their assignments. This challenge can only be addressed with enough funding for the institution. There is no other way we can resolve it.
LT: The report further highlights that people with disabilities face challenges as far as admission into colleges and universities is concerned. Does this also apply to LCE?
Mokobocho-Mohlakoana: Unfortunately, our institutions are not built in such a way that we can cater for people with certain disabilities. Our buildings were designed a long time ago before the issue of people with disabilities was high on the agenda. You will realise, as you walk within our premises, that people with certain disabilities cannot access certain buildings without assistance. We don’t have ramps whatsoever for their wheelchairs, for instance. However, it’s not all doom. We have students with visual impairment as we speak. They are training to become teachers like everybody else. Fortunately we have brail learning material to assist them. This really is a milestone for us. We are proud to produce such teachers. We recently even partnered with Metropolitan Lesotho, with the company pledging its contribution towards assisting us in this area. We are also mindful of our students who, at times, incur temporary disabilities through injuries, and they are not able to gain access on their own to certain facilities of the college. It is sad to observe this. However, there are plans in the pipeline to upgrade the buildings to make sure they are accessible to everyone regardless of their state.
LT: There is also the issue of staff attrition raised in the report. What are you doing to retain the staff?
Mokobocho-Mohlakoana: My opinion on the issue of staff attrition may differ slightly from others. For instance, I wasn’t educated by this institution myself. But I am here working for it. If you expect professionals not to move, you would be expecting a miracle. Professionals will move. What would worry me is if the rate at which they are moving becomes alarming. We cannot afford to have people who are indispensable – someone who, if he or she leaves the college, then we are doomed. No. We have a lot of skilled people in our population. We should be able to use them flexibly. Teachers always major in at least two subjects even at universities. One lecturer could specialise in teaching Mathematics, but where need arises the same person can also teach Physics. This issue also depends on how we manage our human resources – do we know the skills we possess within the institutions such that if there is a gap, because gaps will always be there, we are ready to fill it up? Remember gaps are not only there because professionals are moving, but there are also unavoidable issues of nature that cause people to leave this world without warning. We should always be on the lookout. Why should we expect other institutions to lose staff to us and not expect the same to happen to us? I am saying this because some professionals we now have here were once at other institutions.
LT: Does that mean members of staff are not leaving LCE in large numbers?
Mokobocho-Mohlakoana: They are not. I know the issue of staff attrition could be a problem in other institutions, but it is not the case at LCE. Yes, people are leaving but it is not at an alarming rate.
LT: The other issue of concern by CHE is that institutions of higher learning, including LCE, mainly seem to be offering sub-degree programmes. How ambitious are you to improve the college from offering diploma and certificate qualifications only to providing degrees?
Mokobocho-Mohlakoana: Very ambitious. But we should be mindful of the fact that we produce teachers for the manpower needs of the country. I don’t just wake up one morning hoping we can do things as we want. I was party to CHE when this report was being discussed and the emphasis was our research, generally as institutions of higher learning, is very low because we offer programmes of low qualification. These students, obviously, would not be engaged in deeper research. What comes to my mind is that the National University of Lesotho (NUL) is already producing degree-qualified teachers. Botho University, on the other hand, has surpassed us; it offers degree programmes. I then asked myself, which market is going to absorb all these many degree and master’s qualified teachers? Which market are we producing for? To me it’s a challenge. But it doesn’t mean I don’t have aspirations to grow the college to that level. My point is, we should reorganize ourselves together as stakeholders so that the market is equally ready to absorb our products. Already we have qualified teachers out there, who struggle to find employment despite having graduated many years ago. My advice is let us not rush into this without laying a good foundation for it to be sustainable and fruitful.
LT: Finally, what’s your vision for this institution?
Mokobocho-Mohlakoana: When I leave this institution, I hope it would have grown to unimaginable levels. I believe I will be retiring from formal employment when I leave this college, and as I look back, I would then want to see it as an institution I put all the experience I had to improve it. Governance – I want to see this institution being administered in a very professional manner. When you arrive at this college, you should see state-of-the-art equipment. Quality issues, as stipulated by CHE guidelines, should all be addressed.