MASERU — Professor Sharon Siverts, the new vice-chancellor of the National University of Lesotho (NUL), says sweeping changes are coming.
She told the Sunday Express in an interview on Thursday, her first to a local newspaper since her appointment in March, that her immediate task is to review the curricula of degree programmes so that graduates are more competitive in the market.
That review, Siverts says, will include the addition of courses more relevant to the national needs.
“The idea is to ensure that NUL is offering quality courses that are relevant to the needs of the country and the market,” she says.
The timeframe for the review is yet to be set but Siverts says that “that will be the task for staff in the coming year”.
“We are engaging outsiders as advisers to give a view on what is needed in the market.”
And she warns that during the review some courses might be chopped although she says it is too early to go into specifics.
“It is possible that some degree programmes might be dropped. Universities cannot offer everything,” she explains.
“There are some degrees that are informative and even good for the individual but we really have to look at what we can afford and what the market really wants. We have to deal with what is selling in the market.”
Siverts is concerned that most of the degrees on offer lack the “practical element” that can give the students real work experience before they join industry.
“We realise that if we are going to be relevant to the needs of the country and the region we have to start designing programmes that are of high quality.”
She says discussions were already underway with companies that can offer internships to NUL students.
The university is looking at courses that teach students how to set up and operate businesses, Siverts adds.
There are also plans to create a career centre where students can learn about the current trends in the job market, get advice on careers and prepare themselves for job interviews.
To make the courses more practical companies will be invited to subcontract their research work to different faculties.
“That means if companies want some tasks done they can approach our university for help. Our students do the work and in the process they get the necessary practical experience. This is the interaction that we are looking at.”
People with work experience will be invited as part-time lecturers, Siverts says.
She is aware that in the past NUL has been criticised for producing graduates who are only geared towards becoming employees and not job creators.
“In the past most graduates would get jobs in the government but that has since changed. We need to equip our graduates with entrepreneurial skills so they can create jobs.”
Although there is some research currently happening at the university Siverts wants future research projects to focus on national and regional issues.
“Countries look up to universities for some help in policy guidance. They look to universities to help solve national problems through research. We need to be up to that challenge.”
But the problems at NUL go beyond the marketability of its graduates and the lack of research.
The surge in the number of students has strained the university well beyond its capacity.
Shortages of student accommodation and lecture theatres have been perennial.
So has been the lack of chairs, desks and other learning tools like books.
“We are aware that our infrastructure, facilities and technology are not up to speed. We are engaging donors and businesses to see if they can help us improve on that.”
One solution that Siverts is considering is to negotiate BOT (build, operate and transfer) deals with private investors.
Under such deals a private investor can build say students’ hotels, get rentals for some time to recover costs plus profit before handing it over to the university.
Money is also likely to be Siverts’ major problem.
The government, the college’s chief financier, has said money is going to be tight in the next few years.
That means NUL will have to look at other sources to boost its finances.
Yet even if such sources are found the university will have to learn to properly manage and account for its finances.
NUL’s audit accounts have been qualified for the past six years amidst concerns that the management has dismally failed to keep its accounts in order.
There have been allegations of misuse and even outright abuse of funds.
But Siverts promises that this will be a thing of the past and she has “already started making people more accountable”.
“We are working on a more detailed budget so we can account for every cent we get.”
To deal with the reduction in government funding the university will seek help from the donor community and private companies.
She revealed that some private companies have already expressed interest in helping out.
For instance, two local banks are willing to help pay the salaries of two professors that the university wants to engage.
Research projects will also augment the university’s funds, Siverts says.
She is heading a university that is not only in financial doldrums but has also been rocked by student and worker unrests as well as infighting in the top echelons.
The solution, she says, will be to “consult more and respect people”.
“We need to thoroughly debate issues. Of course there will be disagreement but that is what makes the solutions better.”