An outreach of the University of Namibia is helping to develop the new nation. Robert Kirby-Harris reports
Namibia has made significant progress since independence in 1990 - the last African state to be decolonised following a long and bitter struggle.
The government has committed considerable resources to education and health in response to the legacy of under-development for the majority African population. An important part of this commitment has been the University of Namibia, established in 1992 with its main campus in Windhoek, the capital city.
Over the past nine years the university has expanded significantly. It now has some 6,000 students, more than 4,000 of them face-to-face and nearly 2,000 through distance learning.
In 1998, a second campus was established at Oshakati, 650km north of Windhoek in the far north of the country. The initiative recognises the huge need for socioeconomic development in this populous disadvantaged area: nearly half the country's population lives in the region, which is two days' travel from Windhoek.
Community representatives were eager for expanded access to higher education, and the initiative was in line with the university's own institutional commitment to bring education to the people and to support the government's decentralisation and regional development policies.
The university opened up this community-oriented campus to close scrutiny from international academics and local community leaders at a conference titled "Universities Engaging with Communities: the Southern African Experience". The conference took place in late June in Oshakati, and was sponsored by the Ford Foundation as part of its contribution to the debate on the African University of the 21st Century.
The conference affirmed the achievements of the campus, shared valuable experiences on other similar university projects in Southern Africa and obtained direct feedback from the community delegates.
Much of the attention derives from the way the northern campus has been planned in close collaboration with regional stakeholders and with a strong focus on the twin objectives of expanding educational opportunities and fostering regional development.
In its first year of operation, three formal higher education programmes were offered at the campus: a diploma and BSc in nursing and a BEd. Last year an undergraduate degree in business administration was launched, aimed at new entrants to higher education and at public and private sector managers. Diplomas in community development, special education and African languages are also offered at the campus.
Innovative approaches to higher education have been developed using open learning strategies: the combination of face-to-face tutoring, interactive audio-visual lectures, and high-quality learning resources and other support. These strategies bring educational opportunities to the peoples of these northern regions of the country that are of comparable standard to courses on offer at the Windhoek campus, without the expense and dislocation of moving.
Further degree and also vocational (two-year) diploma programmes are being developed to be launched, as fast as resources and the commitment to quality permit. The aim is that students, whether young people or professionals and managers needing skills upgrades, will be able to access a full range of relevant higher education courses within the next few years.
A community education and development unit has been created to promote socioeconomic development. A successful access course is now in its third year of operation and has enabled more than 200 young people who otherwise had no prospects of further education or employment to enter higher education at the university, the polytechnic or various colleges, or obtain jobs. An extensive programme of research into the history and culture of the regions has also been set up.
During 2000, the New Leaders Programme was launched to promote and develop young people with initiative and leadership potential at "grass-roots" level, community-based programmes have been strengthened and real outreach to the rural areas has taken place, enabling formerly disempowered young people to make their voices heard. A small business development centre has also been launched, which has trained and advised well over 100 entrepreneurs so that they can become more successful in creating wealth and employment in the regions.
New projects have continued in 2001 with the establishment of a careers development centre to provide services that will give a real chance to the 90 per cent of young people who do not go on to further or higher education to find or create opportunities for work - a vital initiative given the scale of this problem in the region.
The campus has developed significantly in the past three years but has far more to do. Through regular workshops and conferences with the various community groups, the university is aiming to find out the real needs of the regions and foster cooperation and collaboration. To this end, it has also undertaken or commissioned considerable applied research to improve understanding of the social, economic and physical factors influencing development.
The collaborative approach is being maintained and strengthened with regional government, non-governmental organisations, educational institutions and other agencies - all working together to meet the significant socioeconomic challenges in these regions and promote development and equity.
Robert Kirby-Harris is pro vice-chancellor of the University of Namibia.