NATIONAL University of Lesotho (NUL) Vice-Chancellor Professor Nqosa Mahao says no university the world over can be wholly self-sufficient adding that funding for the tertiary institution is imperative in fostering a knowledge-based economy.
Prof Mahao said this during the recent launch of the Pius the XII artificial egg incubator at NUL’s Roma-based campus.
He made the remarks in light of the government’s demand on the university to generate more income to shoulder the financial constraints that had forced the institution to increase student tuition fees.
The tuition fees hikes ignited violent student protests at NUL’s Roma and Maseru campuses prompting the higher education institution to suspend lectures on 11 April 2017.
The university had proposed a 16-49 percent tuition hike for first year students and 1-42 percent for senior students — depending on the programme of study — for the 2016/2017 academic year.
The fee structure was effected without the input of the National Manpower Development Secretariat (NMDS) which could only afford a 10 percent increase across the board.
The NMDS is mandated with paying tuition fees, costs of research, book allowances, accommodation and food allowances among other costs for selected students.
Prof Mahao had said the tuition hikes were necessary to offset the high costs of running the university which included staff salaries.
He also said NUL could fail to pay salaries for the month of June if the NMDS rejected paying for the new fee structure.
The students resumed attending lectures earlier this month to enable negotiations between the university and the government over their tuition fees.
Addressing a political debate held in Maseru last week, Mining Minister Lebohang Thotanyana said NUL management should shoulder the blame for the institution’s financial constraints because they were “sitting in a comfort zone” of waiting for the government to provide all their funding requirements.
The debate, which had been convened by NUL, also featured representatives of the All Basotho Convention, Basotho National Party, Alliance of Democrats and Movement for Economic Change.
“We believe that the biggest challenge lies with institutions of higher learning themselves, in that they are sitting in a comfort zone where government is the provider of all revenue,” Mr Thotanyana said, adding that the sole provider for these institutions was the government.
“These institutions must go out and find ways to sustain themselves. These institutions are platforms for people that are knowledgeable and have skills, who can go out and conduct research and advise the government as is the case in other countries.”
In his remarks during the launch of the artificial egg incubator, Prof Mahao said the provision of financial support for universities was key to developing a knowledge-based economy.
“This is not a cliché but a reality that the globalised economy is a knowledge-based economy. You cannot run an economy if you don’t have the knowledge,” the NUL vice-chancellor stated.
“Politicians are supposed to be the managers of the economy. They must have the knowledge to do that. Yesterday, I was depressed while listening to the five parties (at the political debate). There was not a single one of them that offered a plan on any of the things they were asked to speak about, and to think they are going for elections!”
He continued: “I then asked myself why our politicians don’t approach the experts and ask them to develop a plan to tackle unemployment, because unemployment is a serious problem for us. It was mentioned during the debate that 40 percent of the youths are unemployed in the country.”
“So I am saying a knowledge-based economy has to be driven by people with the knowledge, and right now that is lacking at the management level of this country.”
Prof Mahao said there was no wholly self-sufficient university in the world.
“I heard some people talking about the need for NUL to be self-sufficient. And they hope that when we produce that thing (egg incubator) and all the other things then the taxpayer will not have to make a contribution to the viability of NUL.
“I have asked one of the panelists (at the debate) to show me any university in the world which is self-sufficient. He said it does not exist, adding that they hoped it would be so in the future.
“So, I said to him you want to use NUL as a guinea pig to prove your theorem which you have not seen anywhere?”
He said little value was attached to the role of higher education in Lesotho’s development.
“Experts classify levels of development into three categories. At the top end is what is called innovation-driven societies or economies which include the first world countries.
“Then the middle level is called efficiency driven economy, and at the low end its factor-driven economies. As Lesotho, we happen to be at the low end of the low end!”
Prof Mahao also expressed surprise “at the level of ignorance” of the university’s projects exhibited by some of the panelists.
“I got depressed by two things (at the political debate), one I kept hearing this theme that NUL is not doing this; NUL is not doing that. But there is at least a minimum of 30 research projects that I know are happening at NUL. Secondly, the politicians who are going to decide the fate of this country are unaware of all these things!
“And when I heard that yesterday I asked myself, are these the people who are going to lead us when they are so bereft of knowledge on what has been happening in the country? Maybe Roma is too far away from Maseru!”
Some of the university’s projects include a yoghurt-manufacturing project the university launched in March this year.
A biscuit production project using sorghum has also been developed by the institute, with a potential for commercialisation.
Added to that, one of the university’s graduates developed an award-winning pothole-detection innovation in a computer programming competition that was held by Vodacom Lesotho last year.
Prof Mahao also indicated that they had engaged the private sector to finance the conversion of their research initiatives into commercial projects.
“We can only undertake these projects if there are resources that enable to come up with innovations.
“This country has fallen behind for the simple reason that we can never industrialize if we import even toilet paper! How can you grow the economy if you have to export money? The development of this country hinges on us as scientists coming up with ideas to spur economic growth.”