The High Court has ordered National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) to grant a provisional licence to UNICAF university, a decision that has left the regulatory body in uncomfortable position, arguing that the technical requirements they raised have not been addressed.
Documents Daily Monitor has seen indicate that the NCHE executive director, Prof Mary Okwakol, informed UNICAF management on August 13 last year that they had failed to meet the minimum standards required to be given a provisional licence to start a university, and would have to wait another two years for a review.
The council cited UNICAF failure to prove ownership of the premises intended to house the university, lack of Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) approval to make alterations to the premises and inappropriate library space.
UNICAF was registered in 2017 as a company limited by shares to establish a private university which would offer online higher education. In August 2017, they were granted a letter of interim authority to start the processes of starting a university.
The NCHE says while applying for a provisional licence, UNICAF told them that they were renting Plot 53B on Ntinda Road in Kampala for five years on a renewable tenancy agreement signed by Mr Alfred Okello Oryem as the landlord.
However, the regulatory body said there were inaccuracies in the copy of occupancy from KCCA dated September 14, 2017, signed by Mr Moses K. Atwine, which indicated that the premises are owned by ROVIS Investments Ltd.
“The land title attached was for Plot 53A… in the name of Okello Oryem Alfred. However, the promoters of the appellant in their application form had indicated they were renting plot 53B. The 1st respondent on this issue further observed that there was a mortgage by Housing Finance Bank on the said land...evidence of land acquisition hadn’t been provided,” reads part of the NCHE documents submitted in court.
It was observed that in 2019, NCHE sent another administrative team to assess the progress at the invitation of Dr Nicos Nicolaou, identified as the university’s promoter.
However, the NCHE team comprising Mr Moses Tuhame, Dr Cyrus S Ssebugenyi and Ms Mary I. Tumwesige Asiimwe maintained in their report that “it might still be a complicated situation for the institution to remodel the current premises and make them for the purpose of an education institution.”
Between November 2019 and March 2020, Mr Oryem, acting as a university council member, reached out to different offices of the State Minister for Higher Education and State Minister for Primary Education for intervention.
Before the impasse could be resolved, the Covid-19 lockdown was announced in March, which later made it difficult for the officials to meet often.
“There was so much pressure. They (UNICAF) went to the ministers, President’s office- everywhere. They politicised it,” Prof Okwakol said in an interview on Friday.
In August 2020, NCHE finally took a decision not to grant UNICAF the status of a university until minimum standards had been met.
High Court petition
On September 18, 2020, UNICAF petitioned the High Court and on February 18, 2021, Justice Michael Elubu ordered NCHE to grant the university the operating licence.
However, the judge dismissed the allegation against Prof Okwakol that she had abused her office by refusing to grant UNICAF a provisional licence.
He cited failure by NCHE to sit as a full council to determine the fate of UNICAF’s application for an operating licence. The judge said such a decision should have been reached after a full council sitting but not based on the decision of the regulatory body’s committees. He further reasoned that KCCA granted the university a certificate of suitability and there was no reason to deny them the licence.
Prof Okwakol on Friday said their council would sit today to see if they can appeal the court ruling. She said there are many inconsistences which they have to review before considering whether to challenge the judgment.
She said the documents UNICAF presented as proof of ownership of university buildings were for a residential house not suitable to host an education institution which was meant to start with intake of about 200 students and blended study services of online and physical programmes.
“NCHE is concerned as to how a certificate of suitability for higher education institution could be issued for the the same premises holding a permit of occupancy as a residential house issued by the same authority,” she noted.
In addition, NCHE said UNICAF lacked library space of at least 2.5 square metres for each student although UNICAF had reported they had 77 square metres.
NCHE also alleges that there is conflict of interest by some university managers. She said, for instance, Mr Okello who was presented as the landlord also writes on behalf of the university as a promoter and council member. She said this poses governance challenges.
“NCHE observed that governance and ownership of the university seemed to be fused. Mr Okello, owns the premises, is a promoter, member of university council as well as legal counsel for UNICAF University project. There are inconsistences in naming of the university...” Prof Okwakol said.
“The campus will have an all access theme to disabled students. Current premises have been remodelled without affecting structural plans. Any further remodelling will affect structural plans. UNICAF university Uganda project as a tenant cannot undertake structural remodelling because the premises are rented. KCCA will also not sanction any further remodelling because of structural risks,” UNICAF responded to some of the concerns NCHE raised in their September 2019 report.