Between 1999 and 2018, the number of universities in Uganda exponentially increased from nine to 52.
This sudden increase is a result of Government of Uganda’s policy to widen access to university education for the many secondary school students who qualify for university, but have no admission to the few public universities.
The greatest motivation for investors is the income tax exemption as provided for in Section 21(1) (aa) of the Income Tax (Amendment) Act 2008, which led to establishment of the current 44 private universities in the country.
The question that every Ugandan should ask is: What difference are these many universities making in the lives of common Ugandans around them and the national economy at large?
It sounds a very difficult question to pose to our learned colleagues, the professors, especially for us, who are nurtured in African setting where questioning elders or those who are more knowledgeable than you, is considered as disrespect.
But I challenge every Ugandan, for the benefit of our society and country, to ask this question to a university closer to you now that they are nearly in every region of the country.
To avoid uncertainty, excessive demand, or very little demand when posing this question to the university professors, we need to know what universities are designed to do by law. The universities and other Tertiary Institutions Act, 2001 as amended in 2003 and 2006, stipulates advancement of higher learning, promotion of research, and dissemination of knowledge as core functions of a university.
This is in resonance with the globally accepted roles of universities of teaching, research and dissemination of knowledge, technologies and innovations. For each of these functions, how are our universities performing?
Are the graduates technically competent and innovative, self-motivated, and confident to confront societal challenges, either as individuals in business or as employees in public and private institutions?
We need to take time to assess our graduates after university for these qualities and if they do not meet the standard, feedback should be provided to universities so that they improve their way of teaching and learning. Students’ capability is a reflection of the quality of training offered in the university.
Dr Dhlamini Zuma, then chairperson of the African Union Commission in 2015, said, “By 2025, the hand-held hoe should be in agricultural museums in Africa”.
But how close are we to achieving this when, with the many agricultural engineering graduates churned out every year, very few engineering innovations are developed? We all need to demand universities to produce passionate and innovative problem solvers.
The second and third, and less visible roles of universities are to generate new knowledge, technologies and innovations, and disseminate them to societies to address societal and national development challenges. Although less supported directly by taxpayers, it is the responsibility of university professors from both public and private universities to generate innovations that address our social and technological problems.
I urge all individuals such as farmers, private sector, NGOs, and government agencies to challenge professors and students from nearby universities with problems, and publicly demand for solutions, because it is their duty, and they have a concentration of highly knowledgeable brains with diverse expertise, which we are not being utilised for public good and national development.
The universities, therefore, need to organise themselves and tell us which office we should be coming to seek for solutions to our challenges and make our lives and national economy better.
Mr Okalany is a technical specialist for development and partnerships at the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture.