Makerere: The answer is in the question

Friday September 25 2020
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By Benjamin Rukwengye

Do you ever wonder what happened to your university dissertation – that is, if you remember the topic – after you submitted? Or what the university does with all the research that the thousands of students submit? Even more important, do you ever wonder how much change – socioeconomic and political – all that research would achieve, if ever it came to life?”

Those lines were the introduction to an ideation presentation made by two Makerere University students, Ronald Kisuule and Ernest Akorebirungi, in 2018. As part of their work-readiness and entrepreneurship training at Boundless Minds, they had been required to identify a challenge, propose a solution and work through its financials. The two young men argued that since the university did not have a digitalised storage system of its students’ research, it was not possible for that research to be actionable. 

So in essence, the research process only served the fulfilment of a ritual or rite of passage and nothing more. They also reasoned that since the research was stored in hard copy, in a university where the ratio of students to lecturer was obscenely skewed, there was no protection against plagiarism – because how do you tell that a student isn’t handing in something from two years ago?

Fair point, but then they had more. They argued that sustainable development is a result of research and that if the cream of Uganda’s education system is that 1 percent that makes it to the university, then surely, there must be something in their research that is worth a dime, if you are looking to solve persistent development challenges. But, of course, you wouldn’t know or find that “something” if you couldn’t even locate the research.

Knowing that they had made their case, they went for the jugular. They proposed a web platform where lecturers could upload students’ research that had been reviewed and found worthy. This platform, they argued, would not only solve all the challenges that they had listed, but that it would also enable students to cite and credit others’ work, establishing their credibility on the subjects. 

It would eliminate duplication of research and also open potential income generation opportunities for students as research assistants by those who needed the service, through simply referencing whose work had been up or down-voted. It was a brilliant idea; only borne of the kind of creative thinking you are supposed to find at university, but unlikely to. 

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That the idea didn’t take off, and the two young men have since moved on to other pursuits, should tell you a lot about the contradictions of Makerere University, which is supposed to represent the pinnacle of our education system. So it was hard for the soul to not dampen from the thought of what might have been lost as videos of the iconic Ivory Tower going up in flames streamed in, last weekend. 

I don’t imagine that students’ dissertations are stored in the Main Building, but I wondered if it’s possible that in one of those dissertations buried in God-knows-where, a student had foretold the risk of fire and even suggested precautions that the university could take. Plausible, right?

This column has posited before that if you need to understand Uganda, the summary version is Makerere University. Innovation and dysfunction, efficiency and incompetence, order and chaos, respect and abuses, merit and tribalism, coexist. 

Basically everything that annoys or makes you proud about Uganda, you can find at Makerere. So it makes sense that a tragedy such as this all-consuming fire was bound to happen – what with people boiling tea! Yet it also doesn’t. It shouldn’t. 

Especially if you consider the fact that the centre of excellence should at the very least possess the ability to forecast – accidents notwithstanding. As newer, grander buildings have sprung up around the university, the Main Building has been caught in the passage of time, yet it can’t be ignored. 
The Main Building will rise again, that’s for sure, but Makerere University, must rise along with it. 

Mr Rukwengye is the founder, Boundless Minds. rukwengye86@gmail.com

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