It is now more than a month since President Yoweri Museveni shut down Makerere University. This was because lecturers had abandoned teaching and issued government an ultimatum: pay our unpaid arrears or we will not return to work.
However, the lecturers are not striking over salaries, because these have been paid in full and consistently. Instead their strike is over a strange thing called “incentives”; amalgamated allowances for extra work e.g. when they teach in the evening or on weekends or when they have a very large class with many students’ scripts to mark.
Apparently the university’s top management organ, the University Council, adopted paying these incentives without a proper budget. If it has budgeted it would have realized that the incentive scheme was neither affordable nor sustainable as it is supposed to be paid out of Makerere’s internally generated revenue. These incentives cost Shs 3.7 billion per month or Shs 43 billion a year.
The incentive scheme was created in 2013. This increased the percentage of the university’s total revenue that goes to pay wages alone to 81%. This has meant that the university cannot invest in many other things to enhance education like books, computers, research, laboratory equipment, new buildings, etc. Therefore lecturers at Makerere are milking the university’s ability to serve the broader interests of education. They have turned the university into their ATM.
Remember that even without incentives government pays 76.6% of the lecturers’ salaries while the university contributes 23.4% from its revenues. Secondly, from 2013 up to early this year, Makerere was only able to pay these incentives to its lecturers at the cost of not paying other suppliers of goods and services. By September 2016, the university had accumulated debts of Shs 130 billion. Thus payment for lecturers has dragged the university to near bankruptcy.
Therefore lecturers at Makerere are milking the university’s ability to serve the broader interests of education. They have turned the university into their ATM.
The lecturers’ strike at Makerere is also unfair for another reason. Currently, the university has total enrollment of 39,546 students of whom only 6,324 are sponsored by government. This means that 33,222 (84%) students are self-sponsored i.e. their parents, guardians or themselves pay fees from which 23.4% of lecturers’ salaries are paid. This means private students paid for an education they are not getting. Secondly, nearly all of these students stay in hostels where they had paid for a full semester. None of the hostels accepted to refund their rent when they were sent home.
There is a broader point to be made from the experience of Makerere. The age of “democracy” (although it is better to call it “mobocracy”) is dragging Uganda (and most of Sub Sahara Africa) along a slippery slope of fiscal suicide. Across this vast continent, many governments, in the face of electoral competition, make promises to increase wages of public sector employees beyond what is prudent fiscal management. This problem is most acute in countries where the ruling party faces a risk of losing elections.
For instance in Kenya, Ghana, Zambia, Ivory Coast and Senegal, public sector wages are now between 45% and 55% of the budget against a recommended ceiling of 30%. Zambia and Kenya have recently failed to pay their public sector employees. Consequently they have been forced to borrow from abroad to meet public sector wage obligations at home. This problem is slowly creeping into Uganda whose fiscal regime on public sector wages (they take only 25.4% of the budget) has been very prudent. However, if Uganda continues to try and placate the interests of every powerful group with wage increases, this prudence will collapse.
Makerere lecturers’ wage increases epitomize this trend. In 2013, a professor at Makerere was earning Shs 3.1m. By 2016, this has increased to 8.04m – a 159% increase over three years. So the incentives have existed alongside this rapid increase in their wages that has not been enjoyed by other public sector employees. Indeed, the Makerere Bursar resigned over these incentives saying they were unsustainable. When a new bursar was hired, he protested these incentives saying the university cannot afford and stopped paying.