Namibia: Interview with Tjama Tjivikua

Tjama Tjivikua

Rector (Polytechnic of Namibia)

Tjama Tjivikua

The Polytechnic of Namibia, is a university of science and technology that was de-linked from the University of Namibia in 1995. The Polytechnic being a dynamic university which offers career-oriented undergraduate and post-graduate programmes at. Could you give us your thoughts on the evolution of the Polytechnic of Namibia activities from its creation to today?

Thank you very much for the opportunity to have an interview with you. Education is the backbone of any country’s development. I am glad that in your visit you are able to cover education. Often times we lose the focus because we think, for instance, that mining is the largest generator of income and so we tend to focus on those sectors. But for a developing country like Namibia, formal education is new and must be given the extra push to make it organic, so people must think of learning because we are so far behind in terms of development. If you look at our Human Development Index (HDI), and the sectors that should be developed but do not have the qualified people, you realize we are really lagging behind. We have a huge gap in every discipline in Namibia - we have a huge gap for qualified people and expertise.

When I took over this polytechnic, my question was what does the new ‘university of technology’ look like. Basically my focus at that point was captured in the concept paper I wrote in 1995 before delinkage where I said the Polytechnic will become ‘Namibia’s University of Science and Technology’ because there is a huge need in the market to create people necessary to attend to the needs of the country. I looked at the profile of the university and identified the gaps in the economy and what the university was producing.

We inherited a small component of 23 qualifications, ranging from one-year certificates to higher certificates and three-year diplomas. We did not have degree programs. So the question was where do we go from there; obviously we had to grow the qualifications but we had to revise them to bring them in line with the needs of the public sector, private sector, NGOs and so on.

The public needs had to be met. The challenge was then to create new courses, new qualifications, review them continuously every three years and we had to introduce degree programs, because internationally speaking, everyone demands it. And of course, we had to build capacity in other disciplines as well, and now we have master degrees.

I looked at our university then and realized this is a traditional university and I did not want to have a traditional university as well. You could clearly see the gap and hence I said then that I must focus on specific things that are not offered by the university but needed by the market. Thus we had to go full-blown on a program for IT and we had to re-do the whole program that we offered in computing. At that time we were only offering a one-year Certificate and three-year Diploma in Business Computing.

Later on we created what we call curriculum advisory boards and now we have people from the private sector, public sector, NGOs and education stakeholders who serve on these boards. This was important because otherwise you create qualifications for the tradition of it and without knowing what the market wants.

Could you tell about some of the University’s key figures for the last year?

In that respect we also looked at the infrastructure in terms of what the institution needed. We did not have the necessary computer network at that time. There were only 80 computers that were linked by DCI’s computer to the Computer Center to facilitate student’s registration and the finance department, just to manage the financial accounts of the institution. So we had to go for a fiber optic network which is quite fancy, I must say, and we are now fully connected. The problem of bandwidth is still with us, a big issue and we are not there yet. It is very expensive and you get little for a lot of money. The point was to create an infrastructure to support the technical and technological qualifications and then to focus on new things that were not done.

For instance, in IT we had to diversify into software engineering, information systems administration as well as business computing. We currently do not have software experts in the industry; and they are not the same as business computing people and they are not the same as the hardware people either. We obtained Cisco certification because the industry is using Cisco hardware. We also had to look at where we come from and hence started a Land Management program.

As you know that land is a big problem (issue) in Southern Africa; in South Africa you know it is a big issues, as in Namibia; Botswana does not have the same problems that we have but land is still an issue with them, Angola of course now grapples with freehold and title holding. These are big issues and so we now offer a program in land management for the whole of Southern Africa. This is all technology based, ranging from surveying to Global Information System (GIS), land use planning, land valuation and so on.

Those are new things that we needed to address the needs of the Namibia people. We have grown from 23 qualifications when we started and we are now at 74 qualifications including master degrees. We started with 2500 students and we now have 7000 students. We have about 240 professors on full-time basis but we make use of other professionals on part-time basis for our part–time and distance education programs. Our total budget is at NAD200 million. We now have about 1300 computers because all the IT qualifications we introduced need computers. The IT department alone has 11 laboratories of 25 to 50 computers each and so is the engineering department which is not necessarily integrated with the IT department because of the capacity; you want to keep them separate although they are all connected to the network.

And then, of course, every student is connected as well - electronically. They can log on from anywhere in the world. They can check their accounts, view or send e-mail, whatever the case might be.

The thing we are fighting for right now is wireless connectivity. We cannot develop education properly, let alone higher education, without the right infrastructure. Infrastructure is hardware, software, connectivity, bandwidth and all that.

The Polytechnic of Namibia celebrated the tenth anniversary in 2005 winning the third consecutive Golden Arrow as Namibia’s best education institution and the offering of the first master’s degree in Information and Technology. What are the new programs you want to offer in the near future?

We are strategically focusing on certain things that are not necessarily offered either in Namibia or the region. If you, for instance, look at IT, it is absolutely necessary that we offer a master’s degree in IT because not long ago, 80 percent of people working in the IT sector were not Namibians. So you have to bring in the graduates, the first degree holders, and then build up capacity to offer a master’s degree.

All our qualifications are internationally recognized. We are in partnership with universities in South Africa and they have one accrediting body which evaluates and accredits; we also get audited. This year we are introducing a Master in International Business. Most of the universities in the region offer Masters in Business Administration and they are not quite the same. Regional integration has a lot in terms of trade amongst countries and there is lot of interaction with the UN bodies, WTO and so on and on. The other one challenge is to build the Land Management to the master’s level which is funded by the European Union.

The Polytechnic of Namibia has international partnerships with other universities around the world in Austria, Germany, USA, South Africa, Netherlands, Finland, etc. Could you please tell us what your next partnerships will be?

We are still looking for more partnerships. We target partnerships obvious to the qualifications and to things we can do together in terms of research and so on. Because of Namibia’s historic connection with Europe, especially with Germany, there are lots of connections for partnerships with Germany, and as you said, with Finland and others. Some of the partnerships are focusing on certain areas like some of the American partnerships which look at entrepreneurial skills development; we have a Center for Entrepreneurial Development that we built based on consultations with the domestic industries and our American partners. We have a Teaching and Learning Center that we also developed in the same way.

We will be happy to establish relationships with reputable universities. But you see, people are also traditional in thinking. You look at academe where you think people should have open minds but we are also still traditional in thinking. It is easy to partner with Harvard for the big university, but if your institution is not known, you are likely to find it difficult. This is one of the issues in which we are engaging government to change the name of the polytechnic to become the ‘University of Science and Technology.’ I am preparing a position paper now for the Ministry of Education.

In 1999, there was a commission appointed by the President to look at the status of education. Every 10 years there is a study on education just like there is a population census. That year, I made a submission to this body that amongst things proposed, we should be renamed and take some more responsibilities from the vocational component so that those people who went through the vocational system do not just go nowhere like it is in the current status quo. And after some arguments with some people, they believed us and they maintained that the Polytechnic should be renamed and transformed. The transformation has been ongoing and we are now looking for a name change.

Are you looking for partnerships in order to improve the infrastructures of the Polytechnic of Namibia?

You see, unfortunately the way it happens is if you form a partnership with another university, it is mostly limited to exchange of information, co-teaching, development of programs and you do not get adequate support to build your infrastructure through that partnership. The funding agencies won’t give you money for that. The development assistance money given to government is for specific programs; be it drought relief, rural development and what not, and it is one of the thorny issues we have with government. The funding is not scientifically done for instance to say look, I have a new library and if I save money anywhere I would put it into the facility to enhance it. They will fund the library and not the equipment inside the library. It is very difficult to operate under those conditions.

We will obviously be interested to harness some funds in order to be able to build. Another predicament is that if you go for funding, normally if you take a loan you are required to produce a guarantee and government has to provide that guarantee. In the absence of that support, the project falls through. On your own just to invest like that, there must be returns on the other side and it does not happen very easily.

What are your main advantages?

I can testify that in many respects, we are better than many universities in the world. We are new, yes we are only 11 years old this year but we have much more to offer than people know or think. We offer an international environment where you can meet faculty members from everywhere in the world. We also offer an environment where you can learn and compete like you can in your own country and then more importantly, we offer the Namibian diversity. One of the things I have learnt is that your own qualification completed in your own country without an international exposure is so narrow and so limited that if you are a decision maker, you have a narrow view of things as opposed to a broader perspective.

If you want to study IT for instance, we give you what you can get somewhere else in terms of supporting infrastructure. Obviously we are not the best university in the world neither are we in Africa. But the growth we are creating here is to establish that enabling environment where we can accommodate exchange programs. Currently we have quite a number of exchange programmes with Europe. These students study for three years and then are required to do a semester elsewhere. Where do they go… Polytechnic of Namibia. The same applies to Namibians who are then accorded the opportunity to study in those countries to further their studies. But we acknowledge that we are new and we must sell our name and build a reputation and profile.

But you see the problem is the name polytechnic; in the traditional African context, it gives a different perspective and impression about the quality of products offered. We are a commonwealth country and in the commonwealth system, say if look to Britain, they have changed all their polytechnics; there are no longer there. The same is true for Australia and New Zealand. South Africa had 17 technikons which are basically the same as polytechnics. They have since changed them to universities of technology. Now you are basically in limbo because you are the only one left with the name called polytechnic and looking at the history, a polytechnic here is not the same as the one in Arusha, Tanzania or Nigeria for that matter. So we were part of that ‘league’ but were not talking the same language.

Your government has set a goal that you call “vision 2030” which aims to see the country prospering in many ways (economically, poverty eradicating, attract international investments, etc). How would your institution contribute to this?

We have been one of the strongest proponents of development in Namibia. People are looking at the Polytechnic as a source of human capacity. If you are looking for engineering graduates, you find them here; if you are looking for a graduate in land management, media technology and so forth. The secret is we take theory, we integrate with project-based learning, and practical learning, and in-service training, thus making graduates better adaptive to the industry. We need a knowledge worker and we are leading the way in that respect. In fact, our theme for this year is Innovation for a Knowledge Economy. For last year it was Vision 2030. We are at the forefront of professing that we need knowledge and with the support of government through funding and otherwise we will continue to make our contribution. We are fully conversant with Vision 2030 and we are leading the way in education.

Your personal experiences are also of interest to us. Could you tell us about your career up to your promotion to Rector of the Polytechnic University as well as your greatest accomplishment during your time as Rector?

I left Namibia to study overseas. I went to the USA where I did my first and second degrees and PhD in Chemistry. Then I worked at a university in the USA, where I was professor for five years before coming back to Namibia. I applied for this position and was offered the job. The greatest satisfaction is working in your country and seeing things happening. You are leading the way. It is nice to be at the top, it is very difficult, very challenging but if you have an open view, like I like to think I have, it is rewarding. But the greatest one is to see ‘your own children’ progressing from step one to step 10. It is very satisfying.

We’re here in the Republic of Namibia to promote the investment opportunities of the country. What would your final message be to our readers concerning these opportunities?

We are a serious partner in development. Our track record of 10 years shows that we are developing for development and our job is not done yet. We are just beginning. We cannot reinvent the wheels of education and history and so ours is to leap-frog and form partnerships because we believe we make success of them. As they say ‘nice things come in little packages’ like the diamond ring and so on. We believe that even big universities have a lot to gain from smaller ones like ours, and generally Namibia has a lot to offer.