Monday, February 3, 2014


Last week Makerere University graduated 12,000 of its students over the last four days.

The university has come a long way from the under 1,000 students it used to graduate in the 1980s. 

We may turn up our noses at the quality of the graduates that continue to make their way into the workplace but that we can churn them out at this rate is a good start to eventually improving their quality.

But more encouraging than the increase out turn is Makerere’s increasing research output.

According to Makerere’s vice-chancellor professor Ddumba Sentamu the university has received about sh184b to carry out research in various areas. The research grants have come from private corporations, aid agencies and academic institutions abroad.

The research has not be done for its own sake but has provided useful findings with real time applications in our environment. Ddumba said as a result of research carried out here it has been determined that the anti-malarial drug Coartem should not be prescribed in combination with certain TB drug. When the two taken together Coartem’s efficacy is reduced significantly. Also there has been research which allows for the accurate detection of sleeping sickness parasites in the Tse tse fly. 

And that is just the tip of the iceberg.

University’s are not only supposed to transmit knowledge but also add to the stock of the current knowledge available. With the speed of change in the world university’s are increasingly being judged on their latter rather than their former role.

Makerere university is currently grappling with the challenge of being a public university and the scarcity of resources that entails and funding its own activities. The reality is that for fear of failing to meet its public mandate of educating as many Ugandans as it can, the tuition fees charged cannot reflect the true cost of the service provided.

The deficit has been bridged – sporadically and half-heartedly, by government.

The new knowledge that comes out of their research efforts are valuable intellectual property, which if handled well can provide income for the institution not only from grants but from royalties and licenses long into the future.

Harvard University and gets upwards of $750m (about sh2 trillion) in research grants while Oxford University earns about £500m (about sh2trillion) annually.  Oxford University’s wholly owned, Isis Innovation Ltd in 2011 made more than sh16b in technology transfer services – essentially making the university’s research findings commercially available.

So in pushing research Makerere is on to a good a thing by many measures and beyond providing manpower for the growing needs of the nation the university can take its rightful place as the driver of the economic transformation agenda in coming years.

The aforementioned Isis Innovation Ltd not only licenses the university technology to third parties but also is involved in providing seed money for entrepreneurs looking to commercialise these ventures, a lucrative if the supported ventures become fabulously profitable. In 2005 Stanford University – Silicon Valley’s hub, made $336m (sh900b) from selling its stake in Google, for instance.

As it stands now most of Makerere’s research funding seems to come from foreign agencies, which is all very nice, but government or local corporations need to fund research into subjects that are of immediate concern to ourselves.

For example a funder in New York may finance research into the importance of sibling positioning in predicting success, which would make for interesting reading but not necessarily have far reaching impact in Uganda as a study in to medical delivery systems in our low income environment.

Makerere should be supported in its increasing emphasis on research by the government and the society at large because research feeds into innovation which will make transformation of our economy more than just a pipe dream.

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