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NUL: academic arena or battlefield?

Special Correspondent

 

MASERU — Four weeks ago it was the non-academic staff who went on strike.

Last week it was the students’ turn to demonstrate.

Such is the upheaval that has rocked the National University of Lesotho (NUL), Lesotho’s biggest tertiary institution, for years.

The target of all these strikes is the university’s management whose actions, policies and general disregard for principles have combined to sustain the spirit of animosity that now pervades the college.

The National Manpower Development Secretariat has contributed to this mess with its ineptness but the bulk of the problems at NUL are internal rather than external.

NUL has become a battleground, a place where everyone is fighting everyone.

Students feel that the management has been slow to address grievances.

Last Thursday’s one hour strike illustrates this feeling.

At the core of their grievances was the fact that the management, the bursar in particular, had delayed in distributing student’s loans from government and that the university had not registered some students who came to school late because they were writing supplementary examinations.

The non-academic staff feel they are being marginalised and the management is applying policies selectively.

Four weeks ago they went on strike precisely because they felt that while the management had announced that it had stopped paying staff cash in lieu of leave days some senior workers had continued to enjoy the benefit.

Academic staff feels there is a conspiracy by the management to undermine them.

The management is normally at odds with the university’s council and senate.

Although these stakeholders are generally at odds, history has shown that they are capable of joining forces against a common enemy if they feel that their privileges are being threatened.

Together they have in the past combined to haunt vice-chancellors out of their jobs.

Since its establishment in 1975 the university has gone through more than half a dozen vice-chancellors.

Rarely do these vice-chancellors leave the institution gracefully.

Its either they are pushed out or they are cornered to resign after some damaging allegations of mismanagement.

Instead of being an institute of advanced learning NUL has been turned into a battleground. 

In this entire milieu the core business of NUL — teaching and research — have taken a backseat.

In their incessant drive to score political points against each other the stakeholders have forgotten the real reason why they are at NUL in the first place.

The collateral damage of their actions is all too apparent.

NUL’s reputation has been tarnished both locally and internationally.

Captains of industry privately complain that the quality of NUL’s graduates has become questionable.

The government, the main funder of the college, is not happy with the way money is being used and speculation is rife that soon it might leave the university to fend for itself.

Donors, the main source of money for research, are now sceptical about funding NUL’s projects because its accountability and governance issues are in shambles.

International students whose higher fees normally help sustain other universities in the world now shun NUL.

The college cannot attract the right calibre of professors and teaching staff.

Its curriculum is out of touch with the needs of this country.

The professional needs of this country have changed faster than the college’s curriculum.

The all-important question now is how NUL can pull itself out of this mess. 

First, NUL needs to go through a radical culture change.

NUL authorities must realise that the college has very limited options in that regard: it must change or die.

For a culture change to happen NUL’s systems of management and the general way of doing things must be revamped.

There is a symbiotic relationship between the culture of an institution and its systems.

A clear code of ethics and governance principles must be put in place at NUL. 

It is clear that part of the problem there has something to do with officials who willfully ignore governance principles.

This is the reason why every year there are fights over how money is either misused or spirited away.

That is why some in the teaching staff use university facilities for their own research projects and never declare their earnings from those projects.

They probably see nothing wrong with flagrant breach of ethics because it has become part of a culture.

Their reasoning is that if anyone can get away with it they too can do it without facing the consequences.

The general indiscipline at the university is part of the culture problem.

This, of course, is exacerbated by the fact that the management does not seem able to dismiss problem workers without flouting basic labour regulations.

Dozens of workers who have been on suspension for many years but still earn their salaries and benefits bear testimony to this.

It must be noted, however, that a culture change could be treacherous unless it has the full buy-in of all stakeholders.

None of them must be excluded from the consultation because doing so jeopardises the legitimacy of the process.

Any effort to transform the university must be based on a common vision and understanding.

But this process will need a capable driver in the form of a properly selected substantive vice-chancellor.

An acting vice-chancellor just won’t cut it because their mandate is short-lived and there is always the impression that they are place-holders.

That substantive accounting officer must be able to redefine the values and vision of the university.

There is no doubt that that process will face stiff hostility from some quarters who will feel that their turf is under threat.

Such people must be persuaded to become part of a new NUL but if they resist the change then there is certainly no harm in excluding them for the greater good of the university.

Once the culture is right and the values and vision are clear NUL must then take a serious audit of its curriculum.

To do this management must first seek to understand the urgent professional needs of this country.

It boggles the mind why NUL still does not train animal health specialists in a country where livestock is the mainstay of the rural economy.

It’s amazing that we still import doctors in this day and age.

We still outsource engineers.

We still import land surveyors.

HIV and Aids specialists have to be trained elsewhere. All these are courses that a university in a developing country like Lesotho must offer.

Yet NUL gobbles millions of taxpayers’ money every year.

Others may argue that these courses need money.

That is true.

But the issue is about prioritisation.

Some courses will surely have to be cut.

Other universities do this all the time and the results are normally beneficial.

If cutting these courses is considered too drastic then reducing their intake will be a viable compromise solution.

Every course at NUL must have a solid purpose it plays in the development of this country.

Lastly NUL must start moving towards financial independence.

It might be many years before it achieves this but there is no doubt that it must start generating its own income through research and partnerships.

The sad part however is that it will not be able to attract funding unless its culture changes drastically.

Now is the time to save NUL.

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