What you need to know:
- Makerere University has grown to become one of the most prestigious universities in Africa and the World over. The Centenary celebrations marks a period of excellent services, and offers a chance to look beyond. Gillian Nantume profiles some of the highs and lows of the institution.
Perhaps, more than anything else, the recent students’ strike at Makerere University highlights the struggle between the past and the future. The students opposed the university’s decision to proceed with blended teaching and learning.
However, digital learning is the norm, and universities all over the continent are using ICT to enrich or even replace face-to-face learning and to ensure access to quality courses.
Prof Edward Ddumba Ssentamu, the former Vice Chancellor of Makerere University, says the university’s focus should be on enriched content and mode of delivery.
“A number of programmes tend to be theoretical. There should be a practical side as well, so that a graduate should be able to get a job straight away, or if not, he or she can create a job. Unfortunately, much of what is being taught lacks practical aspects,” he says.
Prof Ssentamu adds that the mode of delivery of the education should be fully digital.
“It is quite sad that in the 21st Century, lecturers still use blackboards. Delivery on Zoom should be encouraged because the university lacks lecture rooms and it saves time. You can interchange, say, use face-to-face learning for the first semester, and then use Zoom in the second semester. This would help the university to cope with increased enrollment,” he says.
Judging by the recent students’ strike, the main challenge to going digital is the fixed mindset in the community that one cannot get an authentic first degree online.
Prof Livingstone Sserwadda Luboobi, also a former vice chancellor of Makerere University, says the Covid-19 induced lockdowns should have been an eye-opener.
“The university has to find the money to build a solid and efficient network. People struggle to get stable Internet just 40 kilometres out of Kampala. So, if Makerere sets up a network, what happens to those who are far from Kampala but want to log in?” he asks.
Prof Luboobi says government should embrace digital learning at all levels.
“Students come from schools which do not have ICT and they interact with a computer for the first time at the university. When you tell them to attend a webinar or a digital lesson, it will be difficult. So, digital learning should be a big project for the nation,” he says.
Prof Barnabas Nawangwe, the Vice Chancellor of Makerere University, says the institution is embracing e-learning.
“We have signed a memorandum of understanding with Stanbic Bank to enable students buy laptops on hire purchase. We have also invested heavily in making MUELE (Makerere University E-Learning Environment), efficient, and the students are appreciating our efforts,” he says.
With 20,000 of its 35,000 students studying online, Prof Nawangwe says the university has applied for a fund to ensure that all lecturers transform their teaching material to e-content.
Impact of research on the community
No country can move forward without research and in Africa, research is being driven by universities.
Over the years, Makerere University has distinguished itself as a regional powerhouse in terms of research in the health sciences, agriculture and engineering.
Prof Luboobi salutes government for realising that it must support research if the university is to have a future.
“The mission that many of us had a long time ago is that Makerere should be a research-oriented university and I believe we are achieving that, because compared to other universities in the East African region, we are doing well. Look at the work we have done with the Kiira car (sic), HIV, Ebola, malaria, and the veterinary sciences. It’s a good thing that the government set up the Research and Innovations Fund (RIF) because soon, all the research in the world will concentrate in Africa. Therefore, we need to develop our own capacity,” he says.
A number of good researches come out of Makerere University but they remain on paper. The challenge is how to link them to socio-economic development. Prof Luboobi believes the answer lies in the university growing its own talent.
“Let our own people be involved in the research done in Uganda. I have observed that if we send our students to do research abroad, they will come back here but will be useful only to a certain extent. If Makerere is to be involved in solving local and regional problems, our students have to learn what our problems are, and in doing their research, solve them,” he says.
The university’s strategic plan indicates that it will be fully research-oriented by 2030. However, to boost research in other areas out of the medical and agricultural field, Prof Luboobi advises that the university should make a deliberate effort to engage the private sector.
“When I was vice chancellor, we started the Makerere University Private Sector Fund to link the university with the different industries. The late Tumusiime Mutebile (former governor of Bank of Uganda) was chairman of that Fund. We reached out to different industries and agreed to put up a building for that purpose. But, you know once you leave office you don’t know what happens. That Fund was sidelined and only an architectural impression of the building remains,” he says.
There are some who argue that to create an impact on the community in the next few years, Makerere University should decentralise and create centres of excellence in every district.
Since the 1950s, the political situation imposed on the country by successive regimes is mirrored in the university.
Today, Makerere University is grappling with a strike every semester, which some say are politically-sponsored.
Prof Luboobi believes the university’s future does not lie in the country’s political situation.
“Makerere used to be a quiet place for professionals, but today, even the election of Guild President is based on (political) parties. In any given college you will find different sects, pursuing different objectives. While everyone has a right to associate, politics has no place in an academic institution. We are building for the future. You cannot build when you are divided,” he says.
The vice chancellor, Prof John Ddumba Ssentamu, believes digital learning can stem the strikes because there will be fewer students at the university.
“But, on the other hand, I think those who are striking have genuine reasons, which I am reluctant to talk about. I know that during my time, there were more strikes than in any other regime. However, those strikes were politically motivated or internally motivated by the staff,” he says.
Prof Ssentamu also blames the woes of the university on the mode of governance.
“There have been more strikes at the university since they started electing their own leaders. When a vice chancellor comes into that position, somehow he has to... of course, there are campaigns. But campaigning for what? They have reduced the university standards into something else. Some strikes are motivated by the staff. ..
“They (vice chancellors) have to satisfy those who elected them. The question is how? It is true that some people give money to the electorate, although personally, I never did. We should do away with this voting business because it is just destroying the university. I believe it is better for the President or the Governing Council to appoint a vice chancellor as long as he or she is the right person,” he says.
Prof Luboobi agrees that the mode of administration must to change.
“People have different ideologies, but a rigid administration can kill an institution or stop its progress. Even if you are a vice chancellor, you cannot say that, ‘I am on top and you other people don’t matter.’ That doesn’t work. Some college principals are more knowledgeable than you might be. People just need to discuss, learn from each other and work together. I think that is what helped me a lot during my time as vice chancellor,” he says.
In the recent past, the university has faced challenges when it comes to offering its staff remuneration that is commensurate with their qualifications and workload.
However, Prof Nawangwe says government should be lauded for making effort to enhance salaries.
“All are earning a salary double what they were earning in 2015. Professors and associate professors are earning three times what they were earning in 2015. Can any sober person criticise the government about pay in public universities?” he asks.
Prof Luboobi says adds that in his regime, all attempts at inciting the lower cadres to strike over salaries have not been successful.
“Salaries of the lower cadres have been enhanced up to 70 percent, and the government is committed to pay the remaining 30 percent. They must appreciate the effort and sacrifice of what the government is doing at the expense of other public servants,” he says.
Over 100 years, Makerere University has had its ups and downs. What is not disputable though, is that the university has a great future ahead of it. The management of the university, however, needs to prove their mettle in taking the bull by its horns and dragging it into the 21st Century, if it is to be relevant in the socio-economic development of the country.
Makerere University gets only Shs306 billion from the government annually, most of which goes into expenses that do not bring profit. With shrinking funding from donors, in 2014 the university set up Makerere Holding Company to manage the university’s commercial interests, which include huge chunks of land in Kampala’s suburbs of Makindye, Kololo and Bwaise.
However, according to Mr Yusuf Kiranda, the University Secretary, the land remains undeveloped.
“Nothing has been achieved in the last seven years given the restriction on giving public land to private investors for development. However, the relevant legal avenues are being pursued, and Makerere Holding Company is ready to kick off. A number of developments have been lined up, such as, a three-star hotel to replace Makerere University Guest House, a five-star hotel on our land in Kololo, and apartments and business parks, among others,” he says.
Mr Kiranda adds that suitable companies are being assessed to carry out these developments and they will be unveiled as the university holds its centenary celebrations.
Additional reporting by Damalie Mukhaye