Transform Makerere into a private university

Nearly all the strikes that have broken out at Makerere University in the past two and half decades have invariably been triggered by issues relating to inadequate funding and administrative ineptitude.

The funding and managerial crisis at the ivory tower manifests itself in a variety of ways including the cumulating incentive arrears for staff, non-payment of pensioners, deteriorating physical infrastructures (especially students’ Halls of Residence), wanting quality of the food served in the halls of residence, belated payment of suppliers; acute shortage of even the most basic teaching-learning materials/facilities, and delayed clearance of electricity/water/Internet bills.

It is also reflected in serious internal inefficiencies as evidenced in high retaking rates, missing examination/coursework marks, rampant lecturer and student absenteeism, bloated student to lecture room ratios, too much “organisational fat”, ad infinitum.

But, what is the genesis of all these seemingly endemic financial and managerial woes and how can they be mitigated?

Although it would be too simplistic to try to establish cause-effect relationships when discussing Makerere’s financial and organisational predicaments, the continued reliance by public universities on the semi-public financing and managerial policy model is, without any doubt, a major contributory factor. Yes, government continues to bear a greater burden of financing even the education of the so-called ‘private’ university students.

With a weighted annual average unit cost for Makerere university of Shs2,359,043 or about $ 700 for general disciplines and Shs9,073,073 or approximately $ 2,670 for Medicine (as of May 2010), higher education remains a heavily subsidised service in this country.

Equity, efficiency; employment, political stability, economic growth, human rights and “public good” arguments are routinely invoked to justify and legitimise State-funded higher education.

At the same time however, this subsidisation of the costs of higher education by government is proving to be counterproductive in several respects. First, it has to be appreciated that the demand for university education is increasing at a faster rate than the resource-constrained government of Uganda can cope with.

That demand is increasingly becoming more differentiated and ‘customised’ not only because of the rapidly changing and diversified labour market needs, but also owing to the rapid obsolescence or perishability of the knowledge and skills previously acquired from the educational institutions.

More and more resources are, therefore, continually needed to teach newer courses and to update people’s degenerating knowledge, skills and attitudes.

Secondly, rather than reduce inequality, public financing of university education actually reinforces inequality as it obliges students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds (majority of whom are “private” students) to subsidise the cost of educating their colleagues usually drawn from the upper socio-economic quintile (majority of whom are ‘government sponsored’ students).

Thirdly, public financing of education makes government ‘interference’ in the management of publicly funded educational institutions warrantable.

Unfortunately, this ‘interference’ denies such institutions the motivation, flexibility and autonomy they need to attract additional resources from their clientele or the private sector; to ensure optimal utilisation of the available resources; to originate labour market-responsive curricula or to introduce newer and better ways of delivering such innovative academic programmes.

For example, Makerere University has hitherto not been free to revise its tuition/functional fees upwards principally because the political leadership is opportunistically opposed to it.

Nor has the university been able to independently determine and enforce a fees payment schedule to be followed by its students!

And, working via a politically appointed university council, the State also significantly influences the student enrollments policy, staff recruitments, academic programmes, institutional budgeting, and other important areas of decision-making at Makerere. The ‘autonomous status’ accorded to public universities is of a quintessentially cosmetic nature!

There is also anecdotal evidence which appears to suggest that, government-funded students tend to be less committed to their studies partly because they incur significantly lower opportunity costs when they choose to enroll for university education as compared to their privately-sponsored counterparts.

Students’ motivation to research, innovate, challenge existent knowledge, engage in self-reflection and conduct in-depth analysis gets compromised through a publicly-funded educational modality.

It is perhaps partly the reason why Makerere University is now a de facto centre for knowledge reproduction rather than knowledge generation.

Government, therefore, ought to divest itself from matters to do with the financing and management of Makerere. And, the university council members, vice chancellor, deputy vice chancellors, university secretary and other top university management officials ought to be people with the requisite technical expertise and experience in managerial issues.