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University turns to public-private partnerships for more hostels

The newly established University of Namibia (UNAM) School of Medicine has embarked on an ambitious programme of inviting the private sector to take part in the construction of more hostels to accommodate its growing student population.

The school opened its doors in 2010 with 54 trainee medical doctors. That number has since grown to 364 and includes pharmacy students, putting pressure on its hostel, which can currently house only 200.

UNAM Vice-chancellor Professor Lazarus Hangula says student accommodation remains a major challenge, not only at the institution’s main campus in the capital city of Windhoek, but also at its other campuses in other parts of the country.

Although the university had expected the private sector and local entrepreneurs to take advantage of the rapid expansion of Namibia’s higher education system to construct student hostels, this has not happened to a great extent. Thousands of the university’s 17,000 students do not live on its campuses and many have fallen into the clutches of unscrupulous landlords who charge outrageously exorbitant rentals, sometimes in crowded buildings such as garages that are not suitable for human habitation.

Fortunately, in line with the curriculum of the school of medicine, the government has been supportive in ensuring the medical students get sufficient exposure to clinical situations, which can happen over 24 hours, seven days a week.

The founding dean of the medical school, Professor Peter Nyarango, told University World News that to make clinical exposure a reality, the government had advanced the first tranche of funding for the construction of hostels for 200 students. The second tranche, however, has yet to be released.

“This means that more than half of the school’s total number of students will continue to live off campus over the next two or three years, raising fears that such a scenario might negatively impact on the performance of the students,” Nyarango explained.

To mitigate this challenge, the university has embraced the concept of a public-private partnership. The first was launched three years ago and construction of student hostels is ongoing at the main campus.

Nyarango said that working closely with the university’s consultancy wing, University Central Consultancy Bureau, last year the medical school had developed a business plan to present to potential private investors.

“UNAM will approach several local banks and financial institutions to talk to them about the possibility of investing in student hostels. The proposal clearly concludes that this is a viable economic venture and returns on investment can be realised using students’ rentals and the use of such facilities for conferences, for instance,” Nyarango said.

The medical school has grown rapidly in terms of student enrolments and infrastructural development. Phase two of the construction of the campus has been completed, while the inauguration of the buildings is expected to happen this year, paving the way for students and lecturers to use them. The new buildings include a student hostel, additional laboratories, lecture halls and office space.

Among the facilities in the new block is an auditorium with a seating capacity of 350 and two lecture theatres that can seat 90 students each. One of the lecture theatres has state-of-the-art video conferencing facilities.

The block will also house the newly established school of pharmacy, school of nursing and public health, laboratories and offices. There is also a well-equipped gym, a swimming pool and an external amphitheatre.

New programmes planned

The medical school has identified key and core skills areas that have to be developed within the shortest possible time as the country tries to address a critical shortage of human resources for health. The school has already started training some cadres of the country’s health sector that, until recently, were sent abroad to study. The school of pharmacy is set to be inaugurated this year.

Discussions have started among key stakeholders on the feasibility of starting training in dentistry. Barring unforeseen circumstances, that training will commence next January, with 15 to 20 students enrolled, depending on the number of suitable applicants. Discussions are also being held with occupational therapists to introduce a course to train physiotherapists and other health professionals once the school of dentistry has been set up.

Observers say for the dentistry programme to succeed, the medical school would need to work closely with other partners locally and abroad. Well-placed sources say some members of the Dental Association of Namibia would be willing to allow dentistry students to gain clinical exposure in their clinics.

Namibia faces a critical shortage of specialists in the health sector. This was one of the major findings of a recent presidential commission of inquiry into the Ministry of Health and Social Services. Specialists are available in only three of the country’s 34 public hospitals.

“In answer to this crisis, the School of Medicine has been exchanging notes with a number of organisations,” Nyarango said. “The first stakeholder consultation meeting was held in May on postgraduate training. It did a baseline assessment of what was available in the country in terms of specialisation and what was needed.”

He said discussions were being held with a number of universities in southern Africa and beyond on the possibility of a 'sandwich course', in terms of which some training would be done in Namibia and some in collaborating countries.

“That is expected to fast-track implementation of postgraduate training at the School of Medicine. Initially our students would be getting the degrees of the cooperating institutions. Later there are plans to award joint degrees of UNAM and those partner institutions and, ultimately, UNAM degrees.”

The Ministry of Health and Social Services and the Health Professions Council have given their inputs on postgraduate training at the school of medicine. Expectations are that some postgraduate programmes – most likely in internal medicine and paediatrics – will start in 2014.

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