Universities plead with government for phased opening

Students wait for their admission letters at Makerere University in August 2016. University leaders say they need first year students to physically report to the campuses for orientation. PHOTO/ALEX ESAGALA

Universities across the country have entered into talks with government seeking permission for phased reopening.

The universities say they are stranded with first year students who cannot even commence online learning because they need to appear at campus for registration and orientation for the academic programmes they have been admitted to.

The National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) last week ordered universities and other tertiary institutions to halt physical reopening for the next three months as they study the Covid-19 threat  in the country. However, NCHE directed that the institutions can continue with online studies.

Various universities told Daily Monitor yesterday that they are stranded with first year students who cannot be introduced to online learning without being inducted on how the higher education system operates.

Prof Umar Kakumba, the Makerere University deputy vice chancellor for academic affairs, said they wrote to the Minister of Education, Ms Janet Museveni, to allow the university physically host students, most especially those of first year, in a phased manner.

He said Makerere was slated to conduct orientation of new students starting today up to Friday. He said this has been suspended indefinitely after realising that one week would not be enough to induct the students.

“The thinking of the university was that for first year students, after being orientated physically, they need more weeks beyond the orientation week to have some introduction about the course units and programmes, to have some basic concepts in understanding the disciplines. And we also get an opportunity to demonstrate to them how the online teaching operates and they get to know their lecturers,” Prof Kakumba said.

Stranded first years
The Ndejje University Vice Chancellor, Prof Eriabu Lugujjo, said their final year students have already reported at campus for studies, but the major challenge is the first year and continuing students, majority of whom cannot access Internet for online teaching.

He said many students have asked for a dead year because they have failed to cope with online teaching.

“We are saying, let government allow universities to host first year students physically on campus for four weeks and they get to know how things operate before they go home to continue with online teaching,” Prof Lugujjo said.

“We can also have the second year students subsequently for  four weeks, study and go back home with enough study materials to complement online teaching and only come back to do exams,” he added.

The vice chancellor for Kampala International University (KIU), Prof Mouhamed Mpezamihigo, said their continuing students started online teaching on January 18.

Just like other universities, he said their major challenge is the first year students who have not yet started online learning because they are not familiar with the system.

“For us, we would appeal to the Minister of Education through our regulator NCHE to allow phased orientation and induction. Even the online learning system requires that students appear physically. They can come to campus in batches,” Prof Mpezamihigo said.

“If I have six colleges and schools, I can schedule four weeks for two colleges where I know the numbers are manageable and the space is there. The ministry should think hard about this because students are languishing in villages engaging in unlawful acts,” he added.

Prof Mpezamihigo revealed that the shutdown of social media by government has proved a huge challenge with online learning for continuing students. He said the university previously relied a lot on social media to access the students to give them learning materials and coordinate them.

 “We have been using social media to coordinate students most especially via WhatsApp where they could coordinate themselves easily. This is a limitation and we appeal to the State to reinstate social media. Students can access the Internet, but coordinating them is hard because the SMS does not work like WhatsApp or other social media,” he explained.

The situation appeared more dire at Kyambogo University. The Vice Chancellor, Prof Eli Katunguka, said some students had already reported for face to face lessons before they received the communication from NCHE stopping the reopening. He said the students are now stranded in their hostels waiting for communication from the university.

He said the university administration is also confused on how to handle the situation. He said they were waiting for guidance from the Ministry of Education on phased reopening.

“We are discussing with NCHE and government to see whether we can get these students back in phases since their concern is mass reopening. We are going to come up with a plan of how we can safely reopen in phases. We shall start with finalists, the second group and the first year students so that the three or four months can be used properly to avoid this big backlog,” Prof Katunguka said.

He said  Education minister Janet Museveni and other education officials visited Kyambogo on Friday to check on how the university had prepared halls of residence for students if they report. He said the university was waiting for the ministry’s response on this before the end of this week. Ms Museveni also visited Makerere University for the same purpose.

The Vice Chancellor of Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST), Prof Celestino Obua, said the management had not met to decide when continuing students will start online learning.

Challenge with online teaching
He said first year learners have to wait until they have registered as university students and have been trained on how online teaching is conducted.

“We have been conducting online teaching for our continuing students. Our only challenge is orienting first year students online. We do not know them yet and we are not sure if they can access the Internet,” he said.

“We can only do this when they come to campus physically. We had a meeting of all Vice Chancellors last week and have since written to the ministry about this proposal. We are waiting for their response,” Prof Obua added.

Daily Monitor was unable to get a comment from the permanent secretary of Ministry of Education, Mr Alex Kakooza, because his known cellular phone numbers were off air.

Cabinet is slated to sit today to make a final decision on the reopening of schools and phased reopening of tertiary institutions as requested by the universities.