As expected, Makerere University was ordered shut on Tuesday after academic staff refused to blink in their demand for billions in incentive pay which remains unpaid over several months.
Whether it was the best decision depends on the context within which one views Makerere’s perennial crisis of cash shortages. These crises have conspired to turn the university into a nightmare for successive administrations. Some blame it on the government which has slashed subventions to the institution as operating costs expanded over the years, meaning Makerere cannot cover its bills.
Others feel Uganda’s oldest institution of higher learning has ballooned so much it can no longer sustainably be managed as a single institution. There is merit to either line of thought but neither of them offers a plausible solution to the underlying conundrum. Would it be wise to break up Makerere into smaller, semi-autonomous colleges which manage their own budget lines? And how would such smaller academic units be paid for if they, too, remained public property? And would such a disaggregation ensure better appropriation of revenues accruing from the private student programme which some insiders currently question?
In sum, if the government has decided that it will no longer subsidise university education, what is the long term solution? There are thousands of students at Makerere. The academic staff on hand cannot convincingly claim that what they are providing to them is a proper university education, especially at the undergraduate level. This is true because given the numbers, it is humanly impossible to achieve that ideal. As such, quality has been compromised in most disciplines to the extent that there are now stark similarities between this place and a glorified secondary school. If smaller units would restore both efficiency and quality, the other question that needs addressing is: How shall we keep it affordable for the average Ugandan parent? We invite the education policy wonks in government to research the above question. Any studies undertaken in this respect could also seek to establish whether smaller universities are less costly to maintain, and therefore, relatively more affordable. This is crucial because Makerere today probably allocates one third or more of its budget to recurrent, non-core activities.
Universities are supposed to be primarily about research and the cultivation of ideas on how to enrich society. As academic enterprises, their budgets must, of necessity, be heavily skewed towards teaching, research and maintaining a settled and motivated faculty. When ‘running costs’ overtake expenditure on these core areas, as appears to be the case with Makerere, a review becomes urgent.
The issue: Makerere University closure.
Our view: Universities are supposed to be primarily about research and the cultivation of ideas on how to enrich society. When ‘running costs’ overtake expenditure on these core areas, as appears to be the case with Makerere, a review becomes urgent.