By Onghwens Kisangala
Makerere University, Uganda’s oldest and most prestigious institution of higher learning has been in the news over fees hikes and student strikes, declining standards and dilapidated infrastructure.
Inadequate staffing, poor remuneration, accommodation and congestion, high or low fees (depending on whom you talk to; student/parent or administrator) and underfunding among others, have been blamed.
As the managers of the institution are accused of financial mismanagement, failure to maintain and improve infrastructure, not as much opportunity has been given to management of the university to explain their side of the story. It was on that basis that The Independents Onghwens Kisangala spoke to the university Vice Chancellor Prof. Livingstone S. Luboobi.
Funding is inadequate. The fact that we have to deal with a deficit of 60 billion shillings cannot be something that started yesterday. The education sector has the biggest allocation of the national budget this fiscal year, however looking at the breakdown according to the various levels of education in the country, you will find that the highest chunk of it goes to UPE and now USE programs. The entire higher education sector gets only 16% of it. If you are going to factor that percent to all the higher institutions of learning, it is meagre.
But the bulk of students in the university are private students who pay for everything directly to you.
Good. But what do they pay. Student are paying peanuts; if you compare what students pay here and what those in secondary or even in primary pay in their schools, it is ridiculous. We are now at a point of saying that students pay what is commensurate with the kind of services that they should be getting. You know there are many other activities that the university has to carry out. So what is the way forward when government wont allow the university to revise its fees structure and yet at the same time government is not increasing its support to Makerere and indeed any other public tertiary institution in a way that would cover for the shortfalls that we experience? In fact we have been building a deficit that now totals to 60 billion shillings in domestic arrears.
That is not nice to hear.
No, this year government has introduced what we call zero budgeting. That means there is no deficit financing. It means you have to work within what is allocated. This financial year our budget is roughly 140 billion shillings, but we are only realising about 90 billion only. The rest is deficit.
Dont you have the powers to make and implement your own decisions?
Makerere is a public institution and that is why we have to consult the government something we have done a number of times. I think about a year ago the minister of education was reporting to parliament that Makerere has a deficit of about 50 billion shillings. She acknowledged that there is a funding problem. What we would like to see as an institution is a greater commitment on the part of government not just to resolve the problem but also reexamine its view towards the role of higher education in Uganda. The massage that seems to be coming out from government is that higher education is not much of a priority right now.
What makes it difficult for the university council to come up with what they judge to be the right fees to be paid by students for the right service and implement it?
We came up with a cost unit in 2005, we went to the president and he said no.
Does the Act that establishes Makerere University and its autonomy require that the president has to be consulted on this?
There are two different issues. I have been told that there is the law and also the political aspect. So for any country it is not only the law that matters; you come with a law that will put the country into turmoil? So you have to do the consultation. When we went to the president he said it is not the right time. But it will be wrong to say that we been sitting here doing nothing. On the question why the president is very interested on the decisions that we make, it better be put to him.
Most of the buildings of Makerere are dilapidated. Why has the management of the infrastructural facilities been so poor or may be corrupt?
We have a subvention from government and it is government that is responsible for putting up structures in all public institutions. But we get about 100 million shillings only from government per annum for maintenance. For so many years we havent had any money for putting up any structure or renovating one from government. So what would you expect? Even in the laboratories we have very old apparatus and machines. It is ridiculous for to think that you can maintain the main campus and all its other projects like the Agriculture plant, Kabanyolo, College of Health Sciences which includes school of medicine, health sciences etc.
There have suggestions before to privatize the university halls of residence. Is this a venture you support?
The halls of residence infrastructure belong to Makerere University and it will remain so. The university has what we call students housing divisions. This is where the halls operate as hostels belonging to the university but managed on behalf of the university by private investors. In that arrangement, what we call halls of residence now could be opened to all students of whatever category.
There is been talk of MUK academic standard falling. Is that a view that you share?
Our approach to academic training is problem solving based. Students are given a problem topic to discuss among themselves to find out how best they could be tackled. Our science students are selling in both local and international job market like hot cake. In spite of the shortfalls in the teaching process, we still produce the best. If only we got funding from government, this would be a university to come to from within and beyond.
Opened in 1922 as a college offering carpentry, building and mechanics, Makerere evolved into the University of East Africa, offering courses leading to general degrees of the University of London in 1963. On July 1, 1970, Makerere became an independent national university of Uganda. It was the only university in the country until the mid 1990s.