Inside UNAM’s ‘new normal’
…Vice Chancellor, Prof Kenneth Matengu details UNAM’s strategic response amid Health crisis.
THE advent of COVID-19 has brought about a new way of living and institutions of higher learning such as the University of Namibia (UNAM) have been rampantly affected by measures put in place to curb the spread of the pandemic. In this light, Confidente News Editor, Hilary Mare (HM) caught up with UNAM Vice-Chancellor, Prof Kenneth Matengu (KM) to find out how the institution has been adjusting to keep its operations running.
HM: How would you assess UNAM’s year so far; would you say things are going according to plan? If so please explain why.
It has been a turbulent year, but we have managed to achieve our key objectives. The University of Namibia is a large institution, with more than 28000 students, over 2600 staff across its 12 campuses and seven (7) distance education centres. It is therefore, a large and complex system. Any small change in one of its core functions, be it education, service and/or development, can have major implications on all other operations.
Responding to COVID-19 and the disruptions it brought, therefore, had to be managed by means of meticulous planning and ruthless execution.
Fortunately, we are an institution that has benefited from great past leadership, this means that major investments were made on our IT and learning infrastructure, long before the pandemic. Our first victory this year was therefore, that we were able to promptly move all our fulltime-face-to-face courses to online mode.
Some staff and students were not entirely ready at first, so we increased training for staff and how to videos for students and saw major improvements that allowed us to continue with the academic semester. Given that some of the students without access to online learning facilities were affected negatively, we adjusted our academic calendar, developed online quality assurance protocols and have improved our delivery of online learning and teaching. As a whole, our assessment of the first semester would therefore be termed as good, yet we acknowledge that we have drawn new insights from the lessons learnt. This has immensely improved the second semester which is now ongoing as planned.
Besides these challenges, the year also gave us a tremendous opportunities to demonstrate our competencies as a higher education institution. We have been able to support the COVID 19 response in very clear and tangible ways.
We launched the UNAM Cares initiative, as our CSR project. With it we are supporting various communities in the context of sustainable development goals. We were able to donate, beds, mattresses, blankets, pillows, game meat and other food items to the COVID-19 response
On the research end, we recently partnered with Agronomic Board of Namibia to work towards establishing a home-grown seed production and development facility for Namibia. We are also now licensed to conduct COVID-19 tests, which brings a myriad of opportunities for research, this was accomplished with great support from Debmarine Namibia. Recently, we launched a Smart Register mobile application for digital registration of people entering our premises. We are busy testing this app to determine if there are other features we need to strengthen – the idea is to eliminate paper registration at entry points.
HM: Kindly explain your core role in the Namibian society.
KM: Our core role in the Namibian society as a University is prescribed in our Act, the University of NAMIBIA Act 18 of 1992.
According to this Act, we exist “… to provide higher education, to undertake research, to advance and disseminate knowledge, to provide extension services, to encourage the growth and nurturing of cultural expression within the context of the Namibian society, to further training and continuing education, to contribute to the social and economic development of Namibia and to foster relationships with any person or institution, both nationally and internationally”.
By carrying out this role, we contribute to the development of NAMIBIA through research, academic programs, extension work as well as service and development initiatives. It is for this reason that we have responded to the human resource needs of Namibia by developing academic programmes in response to the public and private sector needs. We to strive and have resolved to produce mid-to-high level skilled human resources for the country.
In addition, we continue to prioritize innovation, particularly R&D, as you have recently observed in terms of our response to COVID-19.
HM: Has UNAM improved its curriculum over the last five years? What new programmes are being offered now and their relevance?
KM: First of all, most, if not all universities revise their curriculums from time to time. These revisions are a result of a variety of reasons. Curriculum reviews could be done due to changes in legislation, requirements of professional councils, new innovations or change in international best practice and/or indeed it could be a result of skills demanded by the dynamics of the labour market.
As standard practice, UNAM has had a policy to review its curriculums every 5years or earlier if needed. We now know that in some cases this did not help us effectively and timely respond to what the market needs. Our review circle will now be every 3 years for most programmes with some exceptions. This is to ensure we adjust our programme offering to the rapidly changing needs of the labour market.
Overall, curriculum reviews are continuously taking place at UNAM in order to be in-sync with the registration of qualifications and requirements of NQA.
In response to market demands, we have also introduced programmes such as Dentistry (the ratio of dentists per population is very low), Physiotherapy and Occupational Therapy (trauma cases in the country are high and we need professionals to prevent and manage cases), Veterinary Medicine (we are a major exporter of beef and adequate numbers of highly qualified Vets is needed), Wildlife Management and Eco-tourism, amongst others (our economy is depended on tourism).
HM: What are some of the innovations that you have introduced since taking over as Vice Chancellor of the institution?
KM: Building on the successes and foundations of my predecessors (Hon Prof Peter Katjavivi and Prof Lazarus Hangula), I am fortunate that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel – but we must improve from where they left the institution as and when it is necessary.
I am not a fan of change or reform for its own sake. Thus, upon taking office and after introspection, I have taken the view that the alignment between basic and higher education subsectors is a critical element in an effective and responsive higher education system in any country. For this reason, close liaison between us and these two ministries is central to our stakeholder engagement and partnership strategy. We do not produce grade 12 learners; we receive them from basic education. It is therefore, in our best interest to ensure they come ready for University education.
It is my considered view that the National Basic Education reforms of recent times presents an exceptional opportunity for a comprehensive curriculum transformation that will allow the University of Namibia to respond effectively to changes in the global Higher Education landscape informed by key demands of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). In this context, I took a decision for UNAM to embark on an innovative institution-wide curriculum transformation exercise to not only ensure our products are ready for the world of work but that they can also make a positive impact on the Namibian society and beyond.
Consultations with academic and administrative staff, NQA and NCHE, which should result in an innovative curriculum framework is nearly finalised for the first intake in 2022. We are working to decongest our timetables, all curricula in general to create space, time and resources for skills development, work readiness etiquette and personal development, opportunities for industry attachments, entrepreneurial and leadership development, interdisciplinary teaching and learning, citizenship responsibility or what others may call civil education, as well as competencies in all programmes.
We will emphasise and embrace blended learning to ensure flexibility for students to interrupt, return and continue with their studies, provided there are appropriate reasons to do so. We will not be after passing exams, but we will be in pursuit of skills attainment. Resultantly, our admission criteria as from 2021/2022 intake is going to change with higher grades/points expected. Even higher admission requirements will be set for professional programmes as agreed with the respective Councils. I am therefore, already challenging learners in both grade 11 and grade 12 to be ready for this change.
Why am I doing this? Education is a design – it will give you exactly what you have designed it to produce. Bantu Education, for example, was a design, it gave the results it was designed for. And so, as UNAM, we must also design the education system to give us what we want for the future of this country i.e. skilled and knowledgeable people capable of functioning in the 4IR and 5IR. We want graduates who can create jobs, who are agile, resilient and function as formidable forces of socio-economic development. This is in general what is called process and systems innovation.
On the product innovation side, we are focusing and encouraging our department to embrace product development partnerships (PDPs). Our eight (8) faculties are being consolidated into four (4) and we are seeing more and more systems thinking and products developed. We now have products lined up for incubation and commercialisation (through our commercial entity Inceptus Pty (Ltd.), established in terms of the University Act, Section 3, (Status and proprietary capacity of the University). The prototypes are available already. They include; fresh water fish adaptation to sea water, herbal-based medicinal products and supplements, indigenous foods and beverages as well as IT apps.
HM: Covid-19 has disrupted the academic calendar. How is UNAM responding to the new normal?
KM: We have responded by making adjustments to our academic calendar and strengthening our e-learning platforms. We have increased training of staff to deliver effectively and have shifted from summative assessment to formative assessment modes as we are not able to conduct sit-in exams. The good news is that our system is dynamic and dependable. The Learning Management System that we use, Moodle, provides a range of tools to minimize cheating by deploying randomized questions, timed-tests and assignments etc., as well as a lot of analytics to evaluate the reliability and validity of the assessments done.
The major disruption has been to the courses requiring practicals, industry placements and clinical rotations in health facilities. Where appropriate, we have deployed relevant simulation software for skills practice.
HM: How has COVID-19 also affected revenue flow and the overall progress of the university?
KM: COVID-19 has led to loss of employment for, I believe, a significant part of our population. Given the general volatility in the financial markets UNAM is not an exception. The ability of parents and custodians of our students to pay tuition and other fees have been handicapped or diminished. Meaning our revenue has also been affected.
Overall, although there have been many disruptions to our plans, we stay the course and we are certain we will attain the UNAM we Want.
HM: On a lighter note, how do you describe your journey as Vice Chancellor so far?
KM: The role of the VC is much more complex in the 21st Century, it is not just about administering an institution; it is also about building resilience, ensuring sustainability and being internationally competitive. It is also about being accountable to both private and public sector investments.
UNAM is a large and dynamic organisation with multiple stakeholders and in some cases interest groups – a garden variety, in other words these too must be managed. It is larger and more complex than many people realise. It is a job where you celebrate gains in the morning and confronting emerging dilemmas in the afternoon. That is what I love about this job – the possibility to always see opportunities in the challenges we face as an institution and as a country. I have learnt many things and it helps that we have appointed knowledgeable and wise staff from whom I learn new things every day.
HM: Finally, on a scale of 1-10, how would you rate UNAM’s contribution to the academic sector and the Harambee Prosperity Plan which has education as key to its social pillar?
KM: According to SciVal (Research Management Analysis Report), and other sources, UNAM accounts for approximately 80% of all research production in the country.
We have been, and continue to, contribute to the growth of the higher education sector through teaching, research service, innovation and development. We are thus of the view that we have contributed in a significant way to the achievement of some of the targets of HPP. So on a scale of 1-10, I would give us 7 there is still a lot UNAM can and will do to contribute to development.
HM: If there is anything else you would like to add, kindly do.
KM: I thank God for the privilege and responsibility entrusted to me to lead this institution. More so, I wish to also thank my family, my closest supporters – Marika and our children Namasiku, Kamwi and Lumba for their patience and sacrifices they make. For all the success we have achieved in two years, I give credit and also thank our government for the support, the President of Republic of Namibia, the UNAM Chancellor, our Line Minister, UNAM Council members, executives, senior management and all staff and students for their dedication to UNAM and indeed for the support to the vision – the UNAM we Want.