Monday, August 19, 2013

MAKERERE UNDIG YOUR HEAD FROM THE SAND


This week the university council closed Makerere University indefinitely. This was triggered by the lecturers’ demand for a doubling of their pay, a demand the university nor government, its main backer said was feasible.

This is yet another cross road in the history of the once hallowed institution.

It is possible that Makerere’s teaching staff are under paid. It is even possible that the government could cut other expenditures to meet lecturers’ demands many times over. And it is conceivable that the university can regain its former glory.

What is for sure is that the university is running out of goodwill and the unthinkable could happen to it if its leadership does not seat down, appreciate the challenges to its very existence and take the appropriate steps required to revitalize the once “Harvard of Africa”.

At one time Makerere was the go to university in the region. That changed with establishment of the Dar es Salaam and Nairobi Universities. In the recent past Makerere was the only university in the country. That changed with the liberalization of tertiary education.

Each of these and many other development in the education sector, including the  university’s fading glory means that its centrality to our education system is now in question at best, or a nostalgic myth at worst.

And if Makerere has not read the writing on the wall yet, let it know it’s not at the top of government’s funding priorities.

Of course the dons on the hill would vehemently disagree with this analysis and that would be unfortunate.

Appreciating these changed times would make them appreciate why the government seems reluctant to foot the bill for the elite institution and wake them up to the new, mostly painful changes, they will have to make to remain relevant.

Faced with less than finite resources, competing demands and a cold hard political calculation it is possible, even conceivable that Makerere can be left in limbo, privatized altogether or shut down and it’s valuable real estate apportioned to the usual suspects.

Makerere’s key problem is not a lack of cash but an inadequate management.

For an institution that is as asset rich in lands, intellectual property and good will, to even need to rely on government at all is a scandal that points to a management that cannot unlock the wealth on which it seats.

The best universities in the world get some money from their respective governments and student tuition,  but these are not the major sources of their income.

The UK universities from whom Makerere University derive its legacy, still rely on government sponsorship and student fees for the bulk of their funding. A model that is coming under strain as the UK government works to cut its contributions in the light of the recent global financial crisis.

Makerere should look to Harvard University, which has an endowment fund, the biggest source of operating income for the famous university monies. An endowment fund comprises of monies set aside for investment and the income used to run the university.

Tuition accounts for less than a fifth of the university’s income with about a half of its funding coming from research sponsors.

Obviously Harvard with its $50b endowment fund, the biggest of any university in the world,  has more muscle than our Makerere but the Harvard’s $2.4b operating budget similarly dwarfs Makerere’s $50m or so budget. 

They say the best time to invest is 20 years ago and the next best time to invest is today.

Makerere can start where it is, sweat its current assets, begin to build and endowment fund with a view to weaning itself off – or at least reduce its dependence on the central government, otherwise when the day of final reckoning finally comes it will throw up some very unpalatable alternatives.

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