Planting melons, harvesting apples? Makerere’s problem is value, not price

Thursday November 7 2019

By Daniel K. Kalinaki

One of my all-time favourite stories comes from a kindergarten in Tel Aviv, Israel. Parents dropped off their kids at 9am and picked them up at 1pm. Some parents, however, often came late, to the chagrin of the teachers. Some came a few minutes late, others as late as half-an-hour.

It meant keeping caretakers at the school longer and paying them over-time allowances. The kindergarten owners decided to charge a $20 penalty for every late parent.

Yet instead of reducing, the number of parents coming late increased and they now came even several hours late. It did not take a psychologist brought in by the kindergarten long to figure out the problem: The $20 fine was a cheaper price to pay than the emotional value parents attached to keeping their kids wailing and waiting. Now they could finish their meetings or coffees confident that their kids were safe.

Now that the teargas has somewhat dissipated from Makerere, we can try to make sense of some of the events at the hill. Let’s stick with kindergartens. A half-decent one charges for a term anywhere from a million shillings to the price of a small car for the privilege of having Little Mukasa pick up the flu and nap with other kids in the neighbourhood.

So why would a parent happily pay Shs2 million for three hours a day for pre-school then complain about paying the same for a semester at Makerere where the reward is a degree?

Part of it is simply psychological; parents want the best for their kids and the younger they are, the easier it is to squeeze money out of them, especially first-time parents who will buy every toy mbu to help with early cognitive awareness. (Worry not; by baby #3 you’ll expect them to bathe themselves when they make two weeks and run errands and contribute to the rent as soon as they can crawl).

Another reason is basic economics of demand and supply. There are too many runny-nosed kids chasing very few kindergarten places, especially close to home where the maid can walk Little Timmy home from lunch. Universities, on the other hand, are now a dime a dozen; yes, even Busoga has one – and stop sniggering in the back.

But the real reason is somewhere in-between. One part of it is a case of taking over one of the few remaining quasi-independent (and rich) spaces. Watch the appointments there closely, as well as the real estate, but this requires a book-length article.

So let’s try to summarise the easier part: Universities used to be elitist and rarefied academic and intellectual spaces. Then in the early-to-mid 90s, they were thrown open to anyone with money, including people who, if we were all to be honest to ourselves as a society, would have served their country better by going to plumbing or welding school. Anyway, people who had jobs they did not qualify for, suddenly had money to pay for the degrees they had not qualified for, in order to keep and grow in those jobs. Are we together?

The degree became transactional, or what the Baganda call mpa-nkuwe. One paid a certain amount of money, got their name on a piece of paper and that piece of paper got them a job from which they could recoup their investment.

Today, with the high levels of youth unemployment, a degree can hardly get you a bar waiting job. (Ironically, a good plumber is still hard to find). Thus the problem at Makerere can be summarised as asking for a bit more while offering a lot less.

Unlike the kindergarten, which solved its problem by asking for a lot more ($50) for just about the same service and solved the problem, Makerere, in the minds of many, just doesn’t have the quality to justify its current takings, let alone ask for more.

Many parents would gladly pay Shs5m a semester, even with a struggle, if the experience at Makerere was positively transformative, offered a guaranteed higher return on investment and if they could defer the financial outlay to the future, say through student loans.

But this is now a society where professors earn less than some lowly bureaucrats, where court jesters and ghetto ‘snake beaters’ are driven around in taxpayer-funded monster vehicles, past scientists dodging potholes on bodas. Few believe that those who destroyed the Ivory Tower can rebuild it with a bit more money. As with the kindergarten, Makerere’s real problem is one of value, not price.

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s freedom fighter.
Twitter: @Kalinaki.