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Makerere under fire

By Mubatsi Asinja Habati

University’s problems go beyond pay and strikes

Prof. Venasius Baryamureeba, 42, likes to be photographed with a smile. Lately, however, the smile has not been eye-deep. His hair, which he likes to keep in a close-cut afro, is still neat but anyone will tell you that beneath the expensive and sharp suits he wears lies a troubled soul.


His promise to reform Uganda’s oldest and most renowned institute of higher learning, Makerere University in Kampala, has been tested lately and he has not scored his usual As.

His worst nightmare occurred on Sept. 1, when the University was abruptly closed after two weeks of striking by lecturers. The pretext was the government’s refusal to meet their demand for higher pay and failure to compel the embattled National Insurance Company Ltd (NIC) to pay their Shs 17 billion savings debt. But pundits have read into the closure politics, fear of reforms, and anger over unfair rather than low pay.

While canvassing for support to the top job, Baryamureeba conceded that he was aware that the government was not funding the university as it should. But, he said, the university’s troubles were compounded by financial mismanagement. His plan was simple: Instead of asking the government for more money, the university needed to make its own money.

In an interview with The Independent at the time, he said the university could rake in billions from real estate ventures, saleable research and innovations, increased enrolment in centres across the country, and alumni support.

Two years later, before he is even confirmed in the job, the plan appears to be falling apart.

Makerere has a Shs 168 billion budget – bigger than most government departments. But its demands are equally huge. It has 3,911 staff, 1,790 of them teaching staff, and 35,000 students in eight colleges – formerly 22 faculties. But the government allocated it Shs 134 billion minus the arrears.

Pressure

The deficit leaves Makerere University students and lecturers in perpetual agitation as the Law school, which is one of the most prestigious faculties at Makerere, shows.

The school has lately had difficulty coping with an influx of students. It has over 1,000 students but its computer lab has just three computers and two of these had broken down at the time of this report.

The faculty has no generator for evening students and when electricity blacks out, at least once or twice a week, there are no classes. It has two toilets for first and second year girls; about 350, but the sink in one is broken and both toilet do not flush – the girls have to pour water into the pan from a tank. It is not a beautiful sight.

Each student of law pays Shs 3.2 million per year as tuition fees (approx. US$1,200 or US$1.2 million for 1000 students), more than enough to fix a few of these problems. So why has it not happened?

Beyond Law School, the university main library hardly has any new law books. The latest law reports are of cases of 1988 to 1990. Some have many missing pages. Seats in the library are few and students have to arrive early and queue to get a seat. Yet students pay library fees.

In class, most lecturers come with reference cases and ask students to pay at the photocopier.

Getting anything at Makerere is a struggle.

It’s not unusual for a student to write course work and a lecturer does not return the script. Students never know what they did right or wrong. They can never get guidance from the lecturers or tutors.

Sometimes the results of a coursework go missing. There is an administrator who is supposed to feed them into the computer and passing or failure depends on whether she enters the results or not.

If a student’s results go missing, which means she might not have entered them into the computer, this administrator demands Shs 100,000 “to go to the store to find the paper”. Sometimes she needs more money to feed the results into the computer. Student fears to mess with her. It can be disastrous.

Baryamureeba promised to fix these problems before he was appointed acting VC two years ago. At 40 he had headed the most successful department at Makerere then, the Faculty of Computing and Information Technology (IT), which he had built from scratch through ingenuity, innovation, and street smarts. His faculty was minting money, a commodity which even then was in short supply on the Hill. His colleagues believed he could transform the whole university and supported him.

But the Sept. 10 closure of the university showed Baryamureeba’s abilities to the test. The VC, who openly supports the ruling government of President Yoweri Museveni, was busy lobbying lecturers to return to class when the announcement of closure was made. It was a big blow.

A university official told The Independent that the closure was a “knee jack reaction” motivated by political interference, and the fear that keeping thousands of redundant students on campus without lectures was an invitation for Arab spring-style political protests. The official said no consultation was made to the extent that even members of administration were shocked to hear the University Council Chairman Charles Wana-Etyem announce that Makerere was closing. The lecturers had been slated to meet “the fixer”, President Yoweri Museveni.

Baryamureeba attempted to distance himself from the decision to close the university in an interview with The Independent a few days later.

“The decision is not up to me. That is a council decision and for us we are in management. Council and management are not the same. Management implements council decisions,” he said. Some would invoke a popular word at the university: “Semantics”.

What is not in dispute is that Baryamureeba’s pledge to sustain the university on internally generated funds is under test. In the unfolding melee, unfair pay rather than low pay for dons is at the heart of the pay squabbles.

Demands for higher pay and ensuing lecturers and students’ strikes, are nothing new at Makerere. The latest strike is the fifth in six years. However, the strikes rarely result in closure. The last time the university was closed was nearly five years ago, in December 2006, after a similar salary-increment strike by lecturers was joined by angry students.

Makerere University academic staff under their association, Muasa, in April set up a committee to study and propose what they called “rationalisation of salaries across all university staff”.  But its recommendations were rejected by the University Council and – unsurprisingly – fellow teaching staff  in units with higher pay, commonly called  “wet units”.

Everything looked eerily similar to the 2006 closure, when as similar report was made but shelved. Back then, however, the University management conjured up a deal to pay lecturers a higher salary from internally generated funds, mainly from privately sponsored students, in the short-term. It was hoped that the government would find money in the long-run. However, five years later, the government has not come up with any money. In effect, the tuition fees paid by private students have been running the university.  Renowned Makerere University lecturer and researcher, Prof. Mahmood Mamdani says this was a mistake.

“Nowhere in the world do universities pay the cost of higher education mainly from fees,” he wrote in an op-ed piece after the strike, “In private universities, the difference is paid from an endowment bequeathed by wealthy donors; in public universities, it is paid from the public purse. There is no third way.”

Mamdani has argued against commercialisation of Makerere by treating each faculty as a money-minting entity.  His argument was highlighted in the 2008 MTC Consultants report that argued that private programmes had fragmented the university into “dry” and “wet” areas – with the “wet” being rich and popular faculties or colleges and “dry” being poor ones.

Unfortunately, the demand for higher government remittances to Makerere comes amidst austere economic times. The government which is battling unprecedented high prices and a two-decade high inflation of 21% is maintaining a liquidity squeeze.  Media reports indicate that President Museveni directed the salary arrears are paid and that the ministry of Finance pay the Shs 17 billion Muasa savings on behalf of NIC. It has not happened yet.  So Baryamureeba must gamble with the private students tuition fees.

Up to 35% of the fees paid by each undergraduate private student is remitted to their faculty/ school and 65% remains at the centre. At graduate school, 45% of the money paid by each student is sent to their faculty and 55% remains at the centre.

According to a source in university accounts section, of the Shs 75 billion that Makerere collects in tuition per year, the government takes Shs 50 billion, and leaves only Shs 25 billion with the university to, among other expenses, top up staff salaries.  In other universities, the government pays 100% of lecturers’ salaries. The government’s view is that Makerere, which has the highest number of private students, gets enough money from them. The lecturers at one point asked government to pay them the same salary it pays in other public universities so that Makerere can top up this with allowances but the government refused.

Low pay or unfair pay

Makerere salaries remain the highest in the sector. The least paid teaching staff, the teaching assistant, earns about Shs 2.5 million in salary and allowances.  The highest paid professors earn Shs 6.5 million. Baryamureeba earns about Shs 7 million per month. But other allowances push their monthly take-home up to Shs 14 million in some cases, according to an investigation conducted following the 2006 closure. On top of that, most top lecturers ensure that they get low teaching loads and spend most of their time doing lucrative consultancies for the government and Non-governmental organisations.

Kyambogo University, which is the next biggest university, recently increased salaries of its staff. Still, a professor now earns Shs 4.6 million monthly, about 30% lower than Makerere. They previously got Shs 3.1 million. An associate professor earns Shs 3.6 million, up from Shs 2.8 million while senior lecturers now get Shs 2.9 million, up from Shs 2.5 million. To become a lecturer at Makerere one has to have a PhD and a Masters degree for an assistant lecturer. Yet in other universities, the requirement to become a lecturer is only a Masters degree.

Makerere’s problem appears to be that lecturers pay is very disparate mainly because top-up allowances depend on how much each unit generates. A dean in a big faculty such as CIT earned Shs7 million a month in allowances. One college, of Business and Management Sciences, has 6,000 students and pays a lecturer Shs 50,000 per hour as top up allowance. Most units pay Shs 15,000 or nothing.

Units with more students pay higher top-up allowances and complaints about disparities in allowances abound. The newly created units such as Human Resources, Public Relations and Quality Assurance, generate little income for the university but receive huge top-up allowances.

Even within the same units, the top up allowance varied widely.  In the CIT faculty, a PhD lecturer gets up to Shs 3 million a month and an assistant lecturer with a Masters degree nothing.  In the School of Education, a PhD lecturer gets Shs 1.5 million while many, mainly in the science courses, get nothing as they have no evening classes.

Baryamureeba has proposed a ceiling on allowances. Under a new college system, it has been agreed that allowances do not exceed Shs 3.5 million for principals, Shs 3.3 million for deputies and deans (Shs 3.1 million), and heads of departments (Shs 3 million).

Under the plan, units would cede 35% of income they get from each private student’s tuition to the centre to be redistributed equally across the board. Fearing their hefty allowances would be reduced, the “wet” faculties opposed the idea.

The government pays Shs 7 million per semester for each student it sponsors – mainly in science faculties – thus the 60% salary contribution by government.  For a lecturer to earn a salary at Makerere they have to teach for 10 hours a week, with an allowance paid for extra hours, usually in the evening. Part-time lecturers except those on temporary appointment are not paid a salary.

Louis Kakinda, the Muasa spokesman, says consolidating the salaries and packages into a single take-home package is the best way out of the quagmire.

“We don’t need all these allowances. We only have them to make sure we there is something we take home at the end of the day,” he says, “That is why you find many streams and short courses. If we had a realistic salary, we wouldn’t need that.”

He says lecturers would concentrate on academics, research and publishing in major journals and stop the practice of a single lecturer supervising 20 students because they need the money.

“Our pay should be commensurate with other regional professors. The cost of living has doubled in the last 5 years,” he says.

To meet Kakinda’s expectations, the government must end what Prof. Mamdani in his book Scholars in the Market Place calls

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