Thursday August 21 2014

We should not kill Arts courses; let’s invest to improve them

By Karoli Ssemogerere

The President’s distaste for commercialisation of university courses is well known. So many people are in agreement with him.

Universities, in a bid to attract students, have outdone themselves in designing cookie-cutter courses with shallow promises of attracting the eye of employees.

The ‘drier’ faculties in Makerere University, for example, have responded to being frowned upon by richer revenue generators by designing courses such as the Bachelor of Tourism.

The Music, Dance and Drama Department found itself with three new standalone degrees where a more all-round Bachelor of Fine Arts degree would have done.

Philosophy has a new degree - Human Rights - where a more general degree in the Classics and Ancient languages would have done.

It is impossible to print all these degrees in one column without finishing up the Editor’s allocated space but the culprits are many: Conflict Resolution, Medical Technology, etc.

To this extent, the criticism is understandable. However, the general attack on humanities threatens viable well-thought out courses like the now closed Bachelor of Development Studies at Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST).

Products of this course are a viable answer to community development challenges in rural and semi-urban Uganda. Secondly, greed is likely to kill the building blocks of a good undergraduate university education and overall quality of education.

Young students are under more pressure to “commit” early to professions even where they don’t feel quite suited for them.

The rising cost of education and under-investment by government in institutions like Makerere are only likely to increase the pressure to study ‘job-oriented’ courses whose utility is likely to fade with over-supply and shifts in the economy.

MUST, for example, has been earmarked for Oil and Gas Studies in a sub-region that does not have a drop of oil. A beautiful campus disconnected from the rest of the university graces the Bushenyi-Mbarara highway in the middle of nowhere.

This campus is coming up at a time when the Ankole sub-region is being ravaged by over-supply of milk, banana wilt and land fragmentation.

In fact, a prospective Agriculture student would have to travel to Kampala to attend Makerere or Kyambogo.

And the investment in Science courses has not yielded much in terms of a happier and more skill oriented workforce.

Hundreds of science graduates in disciplines like Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Geology are combing town looking for work.

They are part of a pipeline that never ends and now with the arrival of oil and gas studies in Mbarara, they are going to compete with people with ‘a designer qualification’ but not much more to show.

Handling universities at arms-length has contributed to these outcomes. Government has not been very candid in its expectations of universities by deriving formulas to fund higher education. Strategic investments in universities will close payroll disparity; sustain creativity and foster a younger creative workforce.

Departments designing the kinds of courses the President hates are using the wrong tool to solve a major problem: poor pay. Rich faculties like Law are being forced to subsidise poorer entities.

The university’s system of transfer payments, for example, has deprived the Law School - an important centre of university life - to an extent that its faculty operates out of a condemned building bereft of a stand-alone library and facilities to serve the community and the country. In Mulago, projects have grown much faster than faculty space, offices and lecture rooms. In this state of affairs, faculty then sit and wait on their own, hoping for the President’s phone call appointing them to State office; abandoning chalk for better pay.

Mr Ssemogerere is an Attorney-at-Law and an Advocate.