‘We’ve averted a crisis’

‘We’ve averted a crisis’

A few months ago, the National University of Lesotho (NUL)’s Senate warned that the university might have to shut down because of financial problems. The Senate said the government’s grant to the university had been slashed to unsustainable levels over the past few years.
What followed was panic and anger from the public. The media pounced on the statement by the Senate, with headlines that only added wood to the pyre. “NUL faces closure,” screamed a recent headline in a local publication.

And last week, the Minister of Development Planning, Tlohelang Aumane, said the NUL will have to cut its enrolment and can some academic programmes because the government can no longer afford to sponsor more students.
Indeed, these are ominous times for the national university. Facing an unprecedented financial crisis, the government has been forced to cut spending on national projects and institutions.
Without government support, the NUL will have to shut down. But there are people who are working behind the scenes to avert the impending crisis.

One of those is Tseko Bohloa, the chairman of the university’s council. Bohloa and the Council are taking a more cautious approach to the crisis. They believe they have to remain optimistic even when the situation seems dire.
Their strategy, as Bohloa tells thepost in the following interview, is to keep talking to the government to find both short-term and long-term solutions to what has become a perennial financial crisis at the university. We began by asking him about the Senate’s discussions a few months ago.

The Senate, which is the highest academic body, looked at the situation and took a dim view. The financial trouble is a perennial issue. The grant from the government has been reducing for the past few years and there are no alternative sources of funds.
The Senate said if the situation continues as it is there will come a point when operations will cease. That is to say there will be no money for salaries or teaching materials.
But they were clear that despite the crisis they will not accept any of the three options the government had presented on the way forward.

What were those options?

The first was that the university should reduce tuition fees. The second was to reduce the intake. The third was to cut the programmes to reduce costs. Most of the programmes that faced the chop were from the Faculty of Humanities but I am not in a position to give specifics.
Now, you have to realise that these options were presented at a time when the grant from the government has been reduced from M132 million a few years ago to M78 million now.

What did the Senate say about those options?

They said all the options were unacceptable because they will put the university’s existence at risk. Their proposal is that we should continue to engage the government to find a lasting solution.
Their view is that this matter should be put into the public domain to attract a wide range of views from which new ideas might come.
The idea is for the public to see that there is a crisis and there is little support of higher education from the government. But beyond that, it is hoped that the public might also offer some solutions to the crisis.

What is the reaction of the university’s council?

We have met as Council but, regrettably, we have not yet issued a statement. As Council, we agree that there is a crisis. We agree that if the situation does not improve we might shut down but we don’t want to flag that option in a sensational way. It might be inevitable but there is no one working towards such a drastic action.
The Council therefore agreed that we should continue to engage the government and other stakeholders. We also agreed that this should also be done with the collaboration of other tertiary institutions that are in the same predicament as the NUL.

Has that engagement happened?

We haven’t engaged the government as tertiary institutions but I understand that individual institutions have started discussions with the government. As the NUL we met the Minister of Education (Dr Ntoi Rapapa) this week and I can say it was a good discussion.
We agreed that we should not handle this matter in a way that creates alarm. We agreed that we should find an immediate short-term solution while working on a long-term solution.

What is the short-term solution?

The Minister of Development Planning, who is responsible for students’ bursaries, has committed to retract his earlier statement about the situation and replace it with a more palatable one.
That statement will say that the NUL’s enrolment quota will not be reduced. The university will therefore admit all students who qualify.

In return, the NUL has agreed to suspend the 10 percent increase on tuition. That means we will revert to the fees levels of the last academic year. The idea is to help the government meet its obligation.
Of course there will still be a shortfall on our basic requirements, but we agreed that should not lead to a standoff between the university and the government.
The government has promised that it will not allow the NUL to close. There is a commitment to look for the funds to help operations to continue.

What is the long-term solution?

The NUL has to come up with a sustainability plan. That means working on the diversification of its sources of income. We have to look for ways to generate more income so that we reduce our reliance on the grant from the government. We have to find ways to find the means to develop the infrastructure.
Our immediate agenda now is to take this matter to the public so we can get some help in terms of ideas and funding. We take cue from what happened to the University of Botswana a few years ago.

When the situation was tough, it asked each family to help out with one beast and it works because the response from the public was immense.
We believe we could do the same. Another way is to seek private sector funding. We could look at issuing bonds as a way of funding. These initiatives will coincide with the management transition that is going on.
We are looking for a new Vice-Chancellor and a Pro Vice-Chancellor who understand the university’s peculiar situation. They should share the university’s vision.

So there is assurance that the university will remain open?

I am privy to the recent discussions between the Minister of Education and the Minister of Development Planning. The Minister of Development Planning has agreed that there is need to find a solution that doesn’t involve cutting programmes and reducing the enrolment.
We are expecting a letter to that effect. Both Ministers also understand that the council has to follow procedure to suspend the tuition increase.

That will be done through another Council resolution. It’s a happy equilibrium we have achieved to avert a crisis.
Each party has agreed to pull back a little bit and allow dialogue to continue. What matters to both parties is the public interest, which is the education of Basotho.
But I must say all these will be contained in a statement that will be issued soon. What I can say for now is that there is no need to panic.

Staff Reporter 

 

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