On Tuesday last week, President Museveni revealed to the NRM caucus that he was not aware that the army was deployed at Makerere University to quell protests. His comments came on the heels of student protests over tuition increment, which were violently crushed by military personnel.
“The military is not trained to quell demonstrations, they are trained to kill. Those students are not enemies, they are young children, grandchildren who need to be guided to do the right thing,” Mr Museveni said during the meeting held in the Office of the President Conference Hall in Kampala.
Three days after, the Defence and Army spokesperson, Brig Richard Karemire, said Capt Richard Lubeere, the officer believed to have commanded the raid on the university, was being held at Makindye Military Police headquarters. According to Brig Karemire, an inquiry headed by Lt Col Richard Okumu has been established to investigate incidents of corporal punishment against students by soldiers.
It is not clear yet how the university management will navigate the fees dispute with the students who have exploited a groundswell of resentment to strike.
In an attempt to placate student leaders on Tuesday, the University Council agreed to scrap the 15 per cent increment from functional fees for the next three years.
“The 15 per cent adjustment in fees shall not apply to functional fees for the remaining period of implementation of fees structure adopted in July 2018. Functional fees shall be capped at the rate applied on the admission cohort for 2019/2020 academic year for the next three years,” reads part of the statement signed by the University Council chairperson, Ms Lorna Magara, and the secretary, Mr Yusuf Kiranda.
However, the University Council said the 15 per cent fees adjustment would continue to be applied on tuition fees for the remaining period of three years.
Justifying the fees adjustments, the university council argued that the increment suits the economic circumstances.
Further, the council said Makerere had not increased fees for 13 years before the current fees structure was passed. Others have offered the view that compared to universities across the region, Makerere University charges the lowest fees.
But an economist and scholar at the university, Dr Fred Muhumuza, suggests that tuition is not the silver-bullet to lift Makerere from sinking fast in the financial dilemma.
“There is a need for tuition increment but how much should we increase the fees? The discussion has missed out key issues of a bigger picture. Makerere University is largely funded through government input, direct injection through research grants and tuition. But other universities have investments and endowment funds. It goes out of context to single out fees and discuss it in isolation of other factors,” Dr Muhumuza says.
With a stellar academic record, which places it ahead of its rivals in the region, Makerere University charges much lower tuition fees compared to the University of Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam University, the two academic powerhouses in the region.
But Dr Muhumuza says this view is flawed because Ugandans face peculiar economic challenges.
“We are different economic environments. Ugandan parents are facing different hardships from the parents in Tanzania, from the parents in Zambia and from the parents in Kenya,” he says.
Dr Muhumuza says the empirical study to determine fees increment should be premised on income streams of households.
A survey by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (Ubos) on incomes for the year 2016/2017 indicates that at least 43 per cent of households in Uganda spend their income on food and the rest on other necessities, including rent, transport and fees.
The survey indicates that average monthly income for Ugandans in the same period was a paltry Shs416,000. Given that Ugandans averagely spend 43 per cent of their incomes on food, it means that of the Shs416,000, about Shs178,000 is spent on food, leaving an individual with Shs238,000. With other costs such as hospital bills, transport, rent, water and electricity bills, households are left to survive on shoestring budgets.
This means that at least 50 per cent of households cannot afford to pay tuition for their children for the cheapest degree course before the increment takes effect in the next three years.
For instance, a Bachelor’s Degree in Medicine and Surgery cost Shs1.77m a semester in the current academic year. Going by the increment in the next three years, the cost of the same degree will stand at Shs2,564,400, which is way out of reach for many households.
The average family size in Uganda is five, meaning that one will need to have a budget of about Shs6m to educate three children at university per semester.
Makerere administration says the University Council sanctioned the increment after the students’ guild endorsed the new fees structure two years ago.
But Dr Muhumuza says the key stakeholders were not consulted. “Who pays the fees? In the whole picture, you don’t see the parent. You find students lamenting that I was left with a year and my parent can’t pay the fees. Out of desperation, they strike,” he says.
The Ubos manpower survey for 2016/2017 sheds light on the attrition rate of students who dropped out of university as a result of defaulting on tuition fees.
A total of 78 per cent of male students who dropped out of university failed to raise tuition. On the other hand, 48 per cent females of all those that dropped out failed to afford tuition.
In private universities, of the male students who dropped out, 83.6 per cent left as a result of failing to afford tuition while 52.5 per cent females dropped out because they could not afford the tuition fees.
This provides cogent evidence to suggest that if tuition is raised at Makerere University, the rate of those who are dropping out will increase.
Dr Muhumuza says Makerere University administration should seek alternative sources of funding to lift the burden off the shoulders of poor households.
In 2013, Makerere University launched an ambitious plan to raise more than a trillion shillings through a public-private partnership. Under the Makerere University Holding, the corporate entrepreneurial arm, the company was mandated to manage all commercial interests of the university.
In the first project, the university plans to get an investor to construct a convention centre, a three-star hotel and nine student hostels with eight storeys each housing up to 3,120 rooms at the current Makerere University Guest House.
Once completed, the university says this will enable it provide hotel and conference facilities to both the general public and university staff. But beyond the impressive blueprint, there is barely any progress registered.
The university can also engage in investments and capital development anchored on borrowing. In 2018, the Ghana Education Get Fund secured a $1.5 billion loan to expand infrastructure facilities in senior high schools as part of efforts to improve quality and increase access to free secondary education.
The loan facility was meant to rehabilitate existing education facilities and build dormitories, assembly halls, classrooms and computer laboratories in secondary schools countrywide.
Dr Muhumuza argues that Makerere University ought to adopt this kind of financing. “The university needs to invest in capital development. So how do you secure bulk funding so that you can invest now and recoup slowly from those who come after 30 years at the university? These are funding models that we need to bring into the picture so that we don’t overburden current students,” he says.
Advice to government
Dr Muhumuza says government should take pride in offering affordable, quality education.
“We have a gem, which is Makerere University ranked among the best in Africa. The university has a public and social objective to train students to conduct research at a global level. This should be the pride of government to offer affordable education,” the analyst adds.
The right to education has been recognised as a human right in a number of international conventions, including the International Covenant on Economic, social and Cultural Rights, which recognises a right to free compulsory primary education for all, an obligation to develop secondary education accessible to all, as well as an obligation to develop equitable access to higher education.
“You can’t say that other people are eating bread. Government should be proud to say that I am charging lower fees than private universities,” Dr Muhumuza says.