State Should Relinquish Varsity Control

Published on 20th December 2006

Drama ensued at Makerere-University (Kampala, Uganda) a month ago, when lecturers went on strike due to what they called “poor remuneration.” Lectures came to a standstill with lecturers citing the fact that their agitation for salary increase had not received a warm nod for ages. For days, they ignored pleas to resume lectures and promises that their demands would be met after the commonwealth meeting in November 2007. During presidential campaigns early in the year, President Yoweri Museveni had made a verbal commitment to address the issue of poor payment in government educational institutions.

Filled with fury for missing lectures, students added a wild twist to the whole situation by taking to the streets, staging heated demonstrations, blocking traffic and disrupting business. In retaliation, the government responded with an iron fist. The university was closed, students were given matching orders and lecturers were denied use of university equipment. To date, the university is still closed with few individuals holding placards by the university gate everyday, calling upon the government to re-open the institution or face fresh demonstrations.

This is not the first time Makerere-University lecturers and students have taken such extreme actions to have their demands met. Countless times, the university has faced strikes for the very same reasons. It is either poor pay, no allowances for the lecturers, delayed payment of government student allowances, increased fees or hiked retake fees for the students. The row between Makerere- University (MUK) and Makerere University Business School (MUBS) has been a nightmare to students admitted by Makerere-University but affiliated to the business school. Hundreds missed their graduation in October. In another development, the sister government universities like Kyambogo University and Gulu University have also taken to strikes, fronting the similar reasons. 

Why the constant strikes and demonstrations in public universities in Uganda? Why aren’t private Universities in Uganda faced with such magnitudes of rebellion from students and staff? What can be done to prevent this trend? The solutions lie in understanding the problems the universities face. 

Makerere-University as the mother institution, is plagued by a number of problems. Firstly, the university admits an overwhelming population of students every year, close to 15 thousand students per intake. This is collosal when  pitted against its 10 halls of residence for both undergraduate and postgraduate students and library that barely accommodates a majority of  the students. 

The university halls are in a state of decay and require complete renovation.  The issue of remuneration is even more appalling given that the state invests more in corrupt politicians than educationists who determine the workforce of the country. How can one comprehend the fact that teachers and lecturers are subjected to meager salaries while parliamentarians earn fat pay?

Looking at entitlements surprises one the more. Members of Parliament are demanding for 4 Wheel Drive cars worth Ugsh. 60 million, a sum of money a primary teacher, who is responsible for their moulding earns after a lifetime of hard work. Why then should the government cry foul when the university lecturers fold their mats and go home? Is this the way the government should reward its workforce? 

Consider the transcript section, which determines the ability of students to get job opportunities. The department is a disaster. After graduation, many students look forward to getting employed in the nearby future but their dreams get shattered most times. The staff have longer lunch hours than normal. They never tire of the words “come next week”, or “your file is lost.” When a friend, after several shoe replacements finally managed to get a job, his bosses gave him a deadline to present his transcript. After many trips to the office, his transcript was ready on the very last day of the deadline. Without it, he was destined to be fired. Upon reaching the office, the young man found the document ready but neither signed nor stamped. The responsible officer was already leaving office (it was 4pm) and would only sign it the next day. This was more than the young man could bear. There are countless individuals of this nature not only in Makerere University, but numerous government Ministries. 

My father once told me about the good old days of Makerere University, the times when a father would send his son or daughter to the university without straining or developing an entire hole in his pocket. Those were the glorious days when the students did not understand what it meant to strike. Days when it was a privilege to lecture in this great institution, moreso, the days when students were given  money in the form of “boom”, to cater for their personal needs. What then has happened to this Ivory tower that attracted students from far and wide? Clearly, the problems Makerere is facing translate directly from the inefficiencies that come with government control.

To reclaim the glory of this once great institution, Makerere- University should be entrusted to a private individual. Any organization or institution that runs like a business stands a higher opportunity to be more efficient than state run equivalents. What Africa needs is an education system that is flexible enough to meet the needs of the nation. The kind of energy and commitment needed to fulfill the needs of the education sector and ascertain this flexibility can only be driven by a clean entrepreneur in the private sector. A private individual running this institution will be more geared towards results with awareness that an impressive track record will attract both local and international students. 

Governments do not have incentives. At most, a government official will do a reasonable job, but will rarely go an extra mile making self-sacrifice; such is the last kind of person Makerere-university needs to regain its glory. Government officials consider such a responsibility only as a job but a private entrepreneur sees a lot at stake and would strive to make things better at all costs, including firing inefficient individuals. Besides it’s easier to hold an individual accountable for inefficiency.

A government is not an individual; it’s a large number of individuals who point fingers at each other, leaving the problem generally unattended to.

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