Wednesday, November 9, 2016


Last week the government shut down Makerere University following a strike by the campus' staff over pay arrears. The students also went on strike to protest the staff strike.

Times have really changed.Who would have thought the day would come when students would strike because they are not being taught.

"Jokes aside Makerere finds itself once again at a cross roads. At issue is the remuneration of the staff, further still, how the university should be funded. This question has been the source of previous impasses...

In hindsight those disputes were left unresolved, token increases were given with promises of better to come in the future.

Every kicking of the tin down the road, has brought us closer and closer to the realisation that the model on which we run our public universities has long passed its sell by date.

The model based on the UK public universities has not kept up with changing realities. The original universities were designed as  institutions intended to train the ruling elite. Higher education was never supposed to be a mass product but a means to cement class distinction especially in the industrial age.

But an explosion in school enrollment in lower levels meant university enrollment had to follow suit.Its one thing to teach primary school kids under trees and another to lay down the infrastructure for a functional university. And soon governments realised they could not bankroll this new academic invasion.

Uganda realised this at the beginning of the 90s with the introduction of private students, something of second class citizens then, but are now the dominant number in the university system.

The idea is that government would continue to support the universities and student fees would serve as a useful addition to the universties' resources.

Clearly it's time again to revisit the model.

"To come to a long term solution it has to be recognised that in the face of other pressing priorities we don't have the resources to fund quality university education on a scale that our development ambitions demand....

Secondly, that the vast majority of university students cannot pay the full tuition fees for a quality education.

Our options range from a closure of all public universities since we can't afford them, not as a crazy an option given the falling quality of our public universities output. Or on the other end of the pendulum is to privatise these universities, let businessmen charge full fees and those who can pay, pay and may the devil take the hindmost.

For a number of reasons, not least of all political, neither extreme is palatable. A solution somewhere in between is where the answer lies.

"The truth is with the embarrassment of wealth in the form of real estate and intellectual property, our public universities would not be beholden to government to the extent that they are today...

Our universities are not unlike our country, Uganda, asset rich but cash poor. What is preventing the universities from unlocking the cash is inadequate management.

The way our public universities choose it's management, based on seniority, is at the heart of the universities' problem.  Companies with asset bases the size of Makerere 's cannot rely on a recruitment policies that hands the keys to the vault to people who have neither owned or run a business enterprise successfully.

The defenders of the current system argue that running university is not like a business hence the way they recruit their management, but the facts do not bear out this urban myth.

Business is about leveraging land, human resource, capital and entrepreneurship to show a return. 

The more efficiently you do this the higher the return.How different is that from churning out quality graduates, if you chose the quantity and quality of your graduates as a measure?

"Our kneejerk reaction against private sector involvement is born of discredited propaganda and a push back by interest groups benefiting from the current unsustainable status quo....

Others argue that government has a responsibility to fund university education. There is no such law. However how government meets this unwritten obligation depends on the context in which we find ourselves.

There is a wider reason why public universities must succeed, and if that requires a greater role for the market so be it, and this is that university education can only be as good as what public universities offer.

If your public universities are shambolic then private sector need only be slightly better, which is not very good, to operate.

So clearly we need to hire more entrepreneurial managers for Makerere, who will be appraised on the quality and quantity of graduates and research the institution churns out.

Secondly the same management needs to be freed of any shackles to its ability to raise money and restructure and rationalise the once "Harvard of Africa".

For the rest of us we need to shed our attachment to unworkable models. The truth is if these public universities collapse under the weight of our expectations because they were not given a chance to succeed university will revert to the old reality where university education becomes the preserve of a select few, who are not necessarily deserving.



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