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Tackling scarcity at Makerere University

By Ronald Musoke

Sparks as Prof. John Ddumba-Ssentamu’s economics theory confronts an ancient political reality

Scarce resources and how they can be optimally allocated is the realm of economic theory. In that sense, economics professor John Ddumba-Ssentamu should be adeptly trading off ends and means at ‘the Hill’, as Uganda’s most prestigious Makerere University is fondly called.

In March, he was into his eighth month as its vice chancellor. But, perhaps not unexpectedly, Ddumba-Ssentamu still has not established equilibrium and, just like his recent predecessors, his reign appears set to involve strikes and occasional closures.

The 90-year old institution has gained notoriety for strikes, by students and teachers, since university education was liberalized and self-paying private students entered the university in the early 1990s. There has hardly been an academic year that goes by without a strike.

The latest in February was over Ddumba-Ssentamu’s first attempt at managing the supply side of things. He decreed that students pay full tuition in the first week of every semester or at least 60% of their tuition within the first six weeks of the semester. A semester at Makerere University comprises 17 weeks.

Unimpressed students took to strike action and running battles with the police ensued through the month. In a petition to the Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, the students said they prefer the current system where they have up to the period just before exams to pay the fees.

Unlike his predecessors who often played politics in such a situation, the 60-year old Vice Chancellor Ddumba Ssentamu is proving to be a stickler for rules. Instead of calling the usual `reconciliation meeting’, the economics professor who until his appointment was to be found in the boardrooms of the many financial and research institutions in which he is a director, invoked a University Council decision.

He told the striking students that the university cannot back-track on the fees directive unless the university council annuls it. The tuition fees directive is not new, he told anyone who cared to listen; it has been on the books for seven years since 2006. What he did not say was that none of his predecessors had dared enforce it. Ddumba Ssentamu is proving to be quite a dare-devil or as he would say, not averse to student-administration disequilibrium.

Source of disequilibrium

Makerere University’s three revenue streams are the source of the disequilibrium. The university operates on grants from the government, grants from donors, and fundsfrom private students who are 85% of the university population of about 42,000.The Ddumba-Ssentamu fees policy, adopted in August 2006, aimed at ensuring the endemic financial strain at the University ends and it attains positive cash-flow even if the different revenue streams flow at different times and with varying predictability.

Rita Namisango, the university publicist, says it is unrealistic for students to refuse to pay fees in time but expect to attend lectures, use electricity and water, and if they are on a science course, use chemicals and other equipment in the lab.

“How do you expect Makerere to operate with such a situation?” she asks.

The Academic Registrar, Alfred Masikye Namoah,is more concerned by how the habit of students waiting to pay tuition fees just days before the start of examinations affects overall planning of the university. He says although Makerere is a public university,it runs on financial resources generated from private self-paying students.

Namoah, like most of the Ssentamu team, says since private universities and even primary and secondary schools collect full fees at the start of the school term, it seems fair for Makerere students to do the same.

The Uganda Christian University is typical. It expects half tuition in the first two weeks of the semester. By the eighth week all fees must be cleared. The university promptly deregisters a student who misses the deadline. At Kampala International University and its affiliates, defaulting students pay a Shs 50,000 surcharge when they pay late. Makerere is different, the students say. How different?

When he was named VC in August 2012, Ddumba Ssentamu who has been an administrator in various capacities at Makerere since the 1970s must have known the job involves managing a prestigious institution on a thin budget.

In his acceptance speech, Ddumba-Ssentamu said he was aware Makerere suffers inadequate funding, high-staff turnover, overcrowded lecture rooms, poor learning and living environment, poor service delivery, declining academic, research and ethical standards.

Part of the problem is that although Makerere University is autonomous on paper and should determine its own fees structure and management; in reality those decisions are made by the government.

But, as he told the press at a hastily called briefing at the height of the latest strike on the afternoon of Feb.18, the university urgently needs money to pay for water, electricity, and the numerous temporary and part time lecturers since it is only 50% staffed. He broke down the numbers he had been crunching; wages take Shs 5.4 billion a month of which Shs 2.4 billion is from private self-paying students and utilities need Shs800 million a month excluding the cost of teaching materials, laboratory equipment, internet bandwidth, and computer software and maintenance.

Joshua Karamagi, the Makerere University Bursar says in the financial year 2012/13, the university has a budget of Shs174 billion. From the government, the university expects Shs 34 billion for wages, Shs15 billion as non-wage contribution and Shs20 billion for development expenditure, including a presidential pledge to fund innovations in engineering and food technology at the university.

Karamagi expects donor agencies to contribute Shs7billion while tuition fees from private students and miscellaneous income is contributing up to Shs98 billion. It is clear the university cannot run without tuition fees.  Karamagi says although the university should ideally have about 10,000 students, it has over 40,000 and this puts a strain on the university facilities. He says Shs98 billion might sound a lot on paper, but if you look at the unit cost of education, it is barely enough.

A 2007 government commissioned study about funding public universities by Prof. Gordon Macgregor recommended that a  humanities student pay Shs 6 million per year and science students Shs 10 million. When Karamagi says Makerere should be allowed to charge “the right unit cost and the right tuition” those are the figures he has in mind. Currently, the students pay between Shs2.5 and 3 million per year. Unfortunately for Karamagi and his boss, all the other universities, including private ones charge about the same fees. But Karamagi persists.

“The biggest issue of Makerere University is underfunding yet the government contribution; especially the midterm expenditure framework has been flat for the last five years,” he told The Independent. Except for the development fees, the money is paid per student.

Karamagi says, meanwhile, the reality on the ground is that food prices have more than doubled yet the government still allocates each student it sponsors about Shs2000 for meal allowance. Although the university has raised the tuition fees for self-paying students, the increment has not matched the rising costof living.

The perennial underfunding has left the university unable to implement planned activities, offer the quality of services that is expected, and pay staff well. As a result, Makerere lecturers too often strike over low pay.

Museveni’s poisoned pie

Following one such strike by the Makerere University Academic Staff Association (MUASA) in 2006, President Yoweri Museveni called a meeting at Namboole National Stadium in Kampala and offered what seemed to be honey but turned out to be a poisoned piece of pie.

The government cannot raise money in the middle of the financial year, the President told the striking lecturers, but you could use some of your privately generated funds to raise your pay. The lecturers swallowed the bait and raised their pay from their pension account. But even when the new financial year began, the government which is supposed to pay the lecturer’s wages 100% continued to pay the old lower rate.

Since then, the university spends Shs 2.4 billion every month or about Shs 30 billion annually to top up the teaching staff wage bill of more than Shs 60 billion per year. As a result, the university’s expenses over-shoot its internal revenue by over 40% annually. That explains why the university staff wage arrears are about Shs 40 billion today.   The trouble is compounded because Makerere University has always had two pension schemes for its staff; one, is an in-house non-contributory defined benefits scheme and the other is a Deposit Administration Pension (DAP) scheme managed by the National Insurance Corporation.

Makerere staff contribute 10% of their monthly pay to the DAP and the university tops up with 20%. Karamagi says although the two schemes were affordable initially, the university has been chocking under them since President Museveni’s 2006 interference. In 2009, the in-house insurance scheme was abolished as a cost-cutting measure and the DAP-NIC scheme was revised to 5% employee contribution and 10% employer top-up. More needs to be done.

Great expectations

At 60, Ddumba Ssentamu is an old administration hand who must also live with being occasionally compared to the 44-year old Prof. Venasius Baryamureeba who he succeeded. Barya was the youngest ever vice chancellor of Makerere University. In just 33 months in the job, Barya battled the same issues Ddumba Ssentamu is facing with adroitness if not finesse.

He attempted to streamline the financial operations of the university, reduced the number of its bank accounts from more than 150 to less than 30, introduced the collegiate system agreed in 2008 to improve management, and exploited his ICT skills to raise new money from the government and donor agencies. Under Barya, the ranking of the university within Africa improved dramatically. Barya’s critics say it was more style than substance. Still, Dumba Ssentamu has to show he is not just a stickler for rules. The university needs that but perhaps more urgently; it needs ingenuity in dealing with the financial crisis.

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