Prior to 1979, higher education in Namibia was only available to students who were able to go to South Africa or other countries abroad. In 1980 the Academy for Tertiary Education was established by the South African government, and classes in teacher training and secretarial courses started. In 1985 another academy, consisting of a university component (the present University of Namibia), a Technikon, and a College for Out of School Training (COST), was established. Not long after independence, Namibia's president, Sam Nujoma, established a special commission on higher education. Local and international scholars analyzed and made recommendations concerning Namibia's higher educational needs. The Academy for Tertiary Education was dissolved, and its three components were transformed into two independent higher education institutions, a university and a polytechnic. In 1992 the University of Namibia (UNAM) was established in Windhoek, and in 1994 the Technikon Namibia and COST merged to become the Polytechnic of Namibia.
The University of Namibia's motto is "Education to Serve Development." The first class of students arrived in early 1993. As of the early 2000s, it had a second campus, the northern campus at Oshakati. UNAM offers bachelor's and master's degrees, as well as diplomas in the faculties of agriculture and natural resources, economics and management services, education, humanities and social sciences, law, medical and health sciences, and science. It has also set up a center for visual and performing arts, a human rights documentation center, an interactive multimedia-services center, a justice-training center, and a language center. The university's library contains a fairly well-developed archive and houses the documents of the United Nations Institute for Namibia (UNIN), including the key documents that decided the country's language policy, the Tjitendero Collection, and publications by UNAM or UNAM staff members.
General admission to the University of Namibia is based on an evaluation scale that adds together the points obtained for the subjects passed either for the IGCSE, or for equivalent examinations. English is a prerequisite for admission. In order to accommodate students over the age of 25 who have not been educated in the post-independence education system, the university has a mature age entry scheme that grants admission to students who successfully complete the mature age entry test.
In 1993 the university set up a Center for External Studies. This center incorporated the earlier Department of Distance Education and created the Department of Continuing Education. The Department of Distance Education provides opportunities for off-campus students to take degrees and diplomas as external students. The Department of Continuing Education offers primarily short non-qualification courses meeting the immediate needs of various groups in the community. Since 1995 the Center for External Studies has been phasing out the previous primary teacher education certificates and diplomas and replacing these with external degrees. Distance learning programs offered by the university include the degrees of bachelor's of science, nursing (advanced practice), bachelor's of education, diploma in education, African languages, and bachelor's of business administration.
In 1994 the Namibian Public Service Commission sanctioned the creation of the Namibian College of Open Learning (NAMCOL) within the Ministry of Basic Education and Culture. Based in Katutura, NAMCOL now offers all the Continuing and Distance Education programs formerly run by the Directorate of Distance Education and Educational Broadcasting. Its main role is to enroll Namibians who have been unable to gain admission in the formal school system. NAMCOL has several face-to-face centers. Subjects offered vary depending upon the availability of tutors and the size of the enrollment. In these centers grade 12 IGCSE subjects are replacing the standard 10 National Senior Certificate subjects once administered under the South African regime. NAMCOL also offers several grade 12 IGCSE subjects through distance education. The third major program offered by NAMCOL is the Certificate in Education for Development, designed to meet the staff development needs of district literacy organizers, agricultural and health extension workers, and community development workers in various ministries and NGOs. The certificate includes three modules: contextual studies, adult learning, and managing projects and practicum. In 1997 a total of 16,463 learners enrolled with the college, and in 1998 the number increased to 17,730.
According to a report by the Commission on Higher Education, the Polytechnic of Namibia is regarded as being as important as the University of Namibia. It provides an education for those members of the community who need more advanced technical skills. The polytechnic, established in 1994, became an autonomous institution in 1996. It links with all other major educational institutions and cooperates with the Namibian College of Distance Education to offer technical subjects throughout the country. It also works closely with the University of Namibia, with technical and vocational institutions, with public schools, and with local industries. In 1996 the polytechnic established its own Distance Education Center to cater to external students following polytechnic courses. The polytechnic offers instruction in technical education and teacher training; accounting, business, and information systems; graphic arts, printing, and design; library studies; management and administration; hotel and catering; engineering; and applied science. The following schools are part of the Polytechnic of Namibia: business and management; communication, legal, media and secretarial studies, engineering and information technology; and natural resources and tourism.
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