We want to be known by the impact Makerere has on society – Nawangwe

Makerere University Vice Chancellor, Prof Barnabas Nawangwe. PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • In engineering, we have the Kiira EV, the first electric vehicle manufactured in Africa, and now, we are putting up a big assembly plant to produce more electric vehicles.

The past 100 years have seen a number of milestones achieved by Makerere University, the oldest public university in the East African region, top of which has been the foray into research in the medical and engineering fields. But, what do the next 100 years hold for a university once described as the ‘Oxford of East Africa?’ Gillian Nantume spoke to the vice chancellor, Prof Barnabas Nawangwe, about his dreams for the university.

What have been Makerere University’s laudable achievements?

Makerere University started as a technical college producing artisans and the first medical assistants. Later, it became a college of the University of London and began offering courses in the medical profession, agriculture and fine art. At the time, the university was putting out the first human resource for the colony. With Independence, the university expanded and began offering courses in the humanities, law and engineering.

After the 1990s, the university began concentrating on research – beginning the journey to becoming a research-based university. Currently, our strategic plan says Makerere should be a fully-fledged research-oriented university by 2030. 

We have been carrying out research in the medicine and health sciences, making a huge contribution to addressing the HIV pandemic globally. We are also leading in research on other tropical diseases, such as, Ebola and Malaria.

The university has also turned its attention to climate change. The Great Lakes region, with its high population and high population growth rate, is the worst affected by climate change. The challenges of food security are immense, so the university is carrying out research on a variety of drought-resistant crops, such as cassava, and has contributed to the improvement of others, such as sorghum.

In engineering, we have the Kiira EV, the first electric vehicle manufactured in Africa, and now, we are putting up a big assembly plant to produce more electric vehicles.

How are you ensuring quality assurance given that there are complaints about the quality of first-time graduates the university is churning out?

Our graduates are valued all over the world. Wherever our students go for master’s degrees, they excel. That talks to the fact that the quality of our teaching is very high. It points to the fact that Uganda’s education system is still among the best in the world, and that makes it possible for Makerere University to put the final touch to these children (students) when they come here.

Students at Makerere University. PHOTO | FILE

The question should be how do we ensure the sustainability of this quality? We will do that through innovations in teaching and learning. In the East African region, we are pioneers of blended methods of teaching. Students can have face-to-face lectures or study online. They can access study material anywhere in the world. This is the future and we want everybody to understand that.

But recently students went on strike, denouncing the continuation of online lectures in the face of a full reopening of the economy. It would seem that the majority prefer face-to-face lectures

Sometimes, I think the media helps distort reality. The media was saying that students are opposed to e-learning, but the students were actually learning at the time. We have 35,000 students. Of these, 15,000 are attending face-to-face lectures, while 20,000 are studying online. We are negotiating with service providers and have signed a memorandum of understanding with Stanbic Bank so that students can buy laptops on a hire purchase agreement, with an initial payment of only Shs70,000.

E-learning and research need a stable and sustainable source of funds. Do you have the funding you need?

We could do with more funding but, we are doing the best with what we have, and our main priority is e-learning. Our annual budget from government is about Shs360 billion. Of this, Shs206 billion goes to staff salaries, Shs30 billion goes to research, and the rest goes to none wage expenditure. The budget for non-wage expenditure was cut by 40 percent due to Covid-19.

Of course, we are also getting support from our development partners such as MasterCard Foundation which is helping us to digitise our systems, including students’ records. 

Let us talk strikes. Why are they persistent? What is Makerere’s underlying problem?

When was the last time you heard of a strike at Makerere University, besides the recent demonstration of six people about e-learning? The last strike, which was over fees increment, was funded and sponsored from outside the university yet the fees increment had been arrived at with the students’ participation. That is why the strike was a short-lived.

We have had fewer strikes over the last four years. Let me say, since I became vice chancellor, we have never closed this university because of a strike. That is the opposite of what used to happen before – where every semester, the university was being closed because of a strike. 

We haven’t had a staff strike in four years. Once, the lower cadres attempted to strike saying their salaries had not been enhanced like the salaries of their seniors, such as associate professors. But let’s be honest when analysing these issues. Currently, Makerere staff, whether professor or not, is earning a salary double that which they were earning in 2015. Can any sober person criticise government over pay in public universities? 

You mentioned outside interference in the strikes. Do you mean political interference?

Political groups sponsor the student strikes and demonstrations. However, I have made it clear that Makerere University is not a political entity; it is an education institute, which is guided by professional standards, and any attempt to disrupt it using (Opposition) politics will not be tolerated. And, I think, I have demonstrated that. 

What is Makerere University’s impact on the community?

Our greatest weakness is that we do not know how to blow our own trumpet, until people like you come and ask us. The Infectious Diseases Institute in the College of Health Sciences is our flagship as far as research, innovation and community engagement are concerned. That institute caters for one third of all clinical attendance of people living with HIV in this country. This means government doesn’t have to look for ARVs for one third of those people.

On an annual basis, students and staff of the college go out to slums and rural districts to provide free medical attention to the residents. Makerere University Hospital has been very much involved in the testing and vaccination of Covid-19 for government officials and the community.

Makerere University Centre for Research in Crop Improvement has come up with a variety of sorghum whose yield is five times higher than the ordinary yield. Seeds have been distributed free-of-charge to the Karamoja and West Nile sub-regions. In West Nile, the farmers are now selling this sorghum to beer companies, and this has boosted their household income.

What is the Makerere University that you would like to see in the future?

I would like to see the university as a leader in transforming our society from a poor and marginalised one to an emancipated and rich society. That is what every modern university aspires to do.

We are moving away from being proud of producing wonderful research papers and publishing widely. We now want to be known by the impact we have on our society.

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