ONCE dubbed the "Harvard of Africa", Makerere University is celebrating its 75th anniversary alongside Ugandan celebrations of 36 years of independence with a policy shift: greater enrolment of fee-paying students.
Besides government-sponsored freshers, nearly 7,000 additional students will be paying their own way to attend classes at Makerere this year.
Where enrolment used to be limited to about 2,000 entry-level students a year, sponsored by the Ugandan government, now many of those attending are mature students, employed and studying in the evenings for degrees such as business administration, commerce and journalism. Tuition-paying students are increasingly taking studies that they believe will lead to successful careers.
The move is starting to pay off. Funds from self-financing students are beginning to meet the budgetary shortfalls that have long plagued Makerere. In the medical and veterinary science faculties, student fees have helped rebuild laboratories, and the commerce faculty has become so popular it is gaining a $1 million building.
It has been student demand over the past few years that has helped form the schools of tourism, environmental management and development studies. The faculties of architecture and pharmacy have increased substantially, too. But paid tuition is also making it possible to improve salaries. While the Ugandan government pays professors about $460 a month, the university is trying to raise the rate to a minimum of $1,000.
The university has come a long way since 1922, when, a year after the foundation of the school as a base for technical training, it broadened its curriculum to include engineering, agriculture, education and medicine. It quickly became affiliated to Cambridge Overseas School, and the University of London. But it was not until 1963 - by then renamed as part of the University of East Africa - did it gain its first African principal, former student and faculty member, Yusuf Kironde Lule, and start awarding its own degrees .
During Uganda's first decade of independence, president Milton Obote, a Makerere graduate, encouraged the institution's growth, presiding over the school's 1970 inauguration ceremony that saw it renamed again as Makerere University.
Obote was not only the country's leader but the institution's first chancellor, a link that affords further credit to the nation and university for surviving despite decades of war and dictatorial regimes. During the leadership years of Obote and Idi Amin the infrastructure crumbled, but the Ugandan people, and a general commitment to education, proved resilient.
For some time survivor status went to Obote, too. When Idi Amin seized control of Uganda through a military coup, Obote saved his skin by being out of the country. Another Makerere employee, its vice chancellor Frank Kalimozo, was not so fortunate. He was murdered when Amin targeted the country's intelligentsia.
At that time, nearly half theMakerere faculty was non-African. Even though most European and Asian professors eventually left, one Briton, professor of literature Margaret McPhearson, remained until her retirement many years later.
Since president Yoweri Museveni's ascent to power in 1986, the fortunes of nation and university have been on the rise. The past decade has not been easy, but Ugandans maintain their belief in education as the key to a strong, independent nation.
The university has trained African leaders such as former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere, and Benjamin Mkapaits, its president today. It now recognises the need to shift emphasis from public-service training to preparing students to work as business leaders and entrepreneurial job creators.
"We are moving toward what one calls a mass education institution," John Pancras Ssebuwufu, Makerere's vice chancellor, said. "It'll be one which will respond to the needs of Ugandan society in terms of real economic and social development."
Professor Ssebuwufu has been vice chancellor for five years and recognises the need to impart not only the skills that allow students to fill jobs, but also the training that will help them create jobs essential to developing the nation's economy.
Even though Makerere still has some budgetary constraints, Professor Ssebuwufu envisages a university "with full library facilities and modern technology". The school may be years away from opening full-service branch institutions throughout the nation, but he foresees more external programmes and hopes to make some available through televised classes.
Nations and foreign institutions have made grants to the school, but more funds are needed to implement Professor Ssebuwufu's plans. The hope is that the Makerere alumni may cough up: many hold prominent positions around the world in industry, education and public service. Half of Uganda's government are Makerere alumni.