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The futility of political public universities

By Henry Zakumumpa

New developments in Kenya dispel the assumption that Uganda has a comparative advantage in the education sector

I recently returned from a regional Universities Conference at Kenyatta University in Nairobi supported by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

Besides noticing the magnificent Chinese-built multilane Thika highway in Nairobi that would find a home in any western capital and which our Kampala’s Jennifer Musisi should interest herself in, I observed an untold story.

Kenya is undergoing a quiet revolution in its university education which has far reaching consequences extending to Uganda.

In our national development plans and East African Community strategy, it is assumed rather than known that Uganda has a comparative advantage over other East African countries with regard to the education sector. However, my recent visit to Kenyatta University has left me unsure.

Until recently, Kenya had seven public universities that included; Nairobi, Moi, Egerton, Kenyatta, Maseno and Masinde Muliro. Many Kenyans unable to afford Kenyan private student tuition fees flocked to Uganda for university education.

Since 2007, Kenya has, through legal notices, embarked on an ambitious drive of establishing a university college in each county with 25 new university colleges already established across the country, a move partly driven by electoral politics.

With new public universities expected in Uganda in West Nile and Teso regions and Kabale University in southwestern Uganda set to benefit from government funding, Uganda is reinforcing the trend.

The principal difference is that the newly established universities in Kenya are constituent colleges of the already existing public universities whereas in Uganda we are setting up entirely new public universities.

The dangers of hastily set up public universities are obvious. African governments have scarcely been able to support the existing public universities characterised by persistent declines in funding and chronic strikes. Therefore, fathering more babies (universities) when you have sons you are scarcely able to feed and clothe is self-defeating. Most certainly these new universities will be left to their own devices and fate.

We have a small pool of qualified university lecturers that we are spreading too thin with declining research output owing to the punishing teaching loads and overflowing classes.

Many former lecturers at Kenya’s public universities have found themselves Vice Chancellors and Principals at the newly established university colleges in their home districts- a further example of the unfortunate ‘ethnicisation’ of public universities.

In Uganda’s case, setting up completely new public universities without established infrastructure (the proposed West Nile university initially did not even have electricity supply), human resources, university administrative structures, curriculum development resources etc make the Kenyan model seem even preferable.

The  major Kenyan public universities have been mandated to nurture the constituent university colleges in Kenya whereas in Uganda, the new public universities are on their own except for two or four administrators seconded from the existing public universities.

Undeniably, there is an unquenched demand for university education in both countries if you imagine the number of Ugandans who earn two principal passes and actually qualify for university education but never make it to university.

But are thousands of more university degrees what poor African countries really need?

The multiplication of public universities in Kenya should be of interest to Ugandan universities especially private ones which have depended on the Kenyan market for many years now. I already see a decline in the number of enrolling Kenyan students in the coming years. And I worry about what will befall the Ugandan private universities.

Mushrooming public universities are not limited to Kenya and Uganda and are common across Sub-Saharan Africa although in some countries political considerations are less of a motivation.

From the sole University of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia has set up an astonishing new 30 universities in less than five years for its 80 million-strong population- part of the late Meles Zenawi legacy. Malawi is setting up three more public universities in addition to its two existing universities of Malawi and Bunda.

Clearly, Sub-Saharan African countries face a common challenge of rising young populations with no viable economies or national plans to meaningfully engage them.

But as seen elsewhere in Africa, setting up multiple public universities is the wrong answer to the right question.

The writer works with Makerere University Kampala.

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