Commentary

Autonomous colleges the way to go for a world-class university

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By Venansius Baryamureeba

Posted  Thursday, May 29  2014 at  21:58
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For quite a while, universities in Uganda have pioneered research on the need to decentralise administration to local governments in Uganda. Unfortunately, these higher education institutions have failed to embrace this good concept, which they have often recommended for governments!
Decentralisation is no doubt a good tool for smooth and effective administration of not only governments but university affairs too. Once a university exceeds 5,000 students, it becomes complex to manage as one centralised entity.

In Uganda today, the big universities have failed to decentralise administration to autonomous colleges with regard to the management of the academic, administrative and financial affairs. It is no wonder that our universities have had persistent unrest over the last couple of years due to gaps in administration and management.

Taking an example of Kyambogo University, the constituent colleges’ model was proposed for this university in the Macgregor Visitation Committee Report of 2007, which is now seven years old. This was never implemented. And as we have seen, Kyambogo has been faced with unrelenting challenges; the most recent leading to a change in leadership.

Makerere University on the other hand already has constituent colleges in place but has failed to allow academic, administrative and financial autonomy to these colleges so that they can have the freedom to raise a big part of the funds for their budgets and also decide on how to spend the funds in addition to autonomously administering the academic and administrative affairs of the colleges with some minimal oversight from the centre, particularly in areas of quality assurance and efficient service delivery.

The best universities in the world have practiced decentralisation for a very long time. For instance, University of London, Cambridge and Oxford do not have more than 5,000 students in each of their colleges.

These colleges are autonomous in terms of handling the academic, administrative and financial affairs of the college. All the big US universities decentralised academic, administrative and financial affairs to either university campuses or big autonomous colleges/schools.

In South African universities, the academic, administrative and financial affairs were decentralised to the big faculties that are headed by executive deans and each of these faculties has decentralised staff to handle the academic, administrative and financial affairs of the faculty.

Makerere University Business School (MUBS), which has largely been peaceful, could have been a good model for Uganda. However, Makerere University and government failed to completely decentralise academic affairs, including approval of programmes to MUBS and this has always been the point of conflict with Makerere University.

London School of Economics (LSE) is an independent constituent college of the University of London that autonomously handles all its affairs, including the academic, administrative and financial affairs of the college; with the university taking an upper hand in quality assurance.

MUBS should have operated with a status like that of LSE. However, MUBS - now with over 15,000 students - can longer operate as an affiliate institution or college. MUBS itself needs to be split into bigger autonomous units of about 5,000 students each for more efficient and effective management.

The case of MUBS increases fragility with every passing year. The continued failure by government to transform MUBS into an independent institution/university is a calamity in waiting. The early warning sign is in the more than 15,000 students, more than five upcountry campuses and more than 10 institutions affiliated to MUBS alone.

With all this growth and mandate, MUBS is still expected to operate as an institution affiliated to Makerere University! How possible can it be that Makerere can efficiently and effectively manage affairs of this affiliate? For decades, there have been concerns globally that universities are being bogged down by the number of institutes they had to manage. The developed world took a step of decentralisation and green-lit the concept of autonomy of university colleges/ faculties. We are yet to take serious steps!

Federated colleges are the way to go for big universities in Uganda if we are to improve efficiency and minimise unrest in the large universities in Uganda. Aiming to reverse falling standards in our universities and increase the focus on research and innovation, autonomy of university colleges should be a pre-requisite. As the world gets more dynamic, different sectors have quickly adapted to the changing patterns.

The higher education sector should do the same. The managerial patterns of a university system must have an in-built flexibility to adapt it to the global changing needs. Decentralisation has been widely lauded as a key component of good governance and development in the 21st century. It has been tried and tested in governments, education institutions and corporations, among others worldwide. It is a concept I highly recommend for Ugandan universities.

The academic freedom that this decentralised structure will provide will be critical in making world class universities in Uganda.

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