Tipping point for Uganda as lack of resources not addressed

David Matthews reports from Kampala on problems with public funding and academic freedom

October 20, 2011

On one side of vice-chancellor Venansius Baryamureeba's business card is the proud coat of arms of Makerere University, flanked by African crested storks.

Turn the card over, however, and you find that the head of the institution - seen by some as the "Oxbridge" of East African universities - is also selling his services as managing director of ICT Consults, an information technology outfit.

Whether Baryamureeba needs the extra money is not clear, but his staff certainly feel they do: Makerere reopened only on 26 September after striking lecturers closed the institution for three weeks in a dispute over pensions and pay.

Uganda's universities are well respected in East Africa, and Makerere is probably the most highly regarded in the region. But most observers perceive a decline from its post-colonial heyday in the 1970s, as limited money is distributed among a ballooning number of students - triggering a boom in the number of private providers.

Research money is scarce. And there are concerns over a "code of silence" in the academy in the face of a government intolerant of any criticism.

Baryamureeba is certainly ambitious: in two to three years' time, he wants Makerere to sit in the top five African universities, and to be the research and development hub of East Africa.

But with a turnover of just $60 million (£34 million) and 40,000 students, he admits the institution has its difficulties. "Our staff are comparable to the staff in Cambridge," Baryamureeba says. "The difference (from Cambridge) is funding for research and infrastructure."

Makerere is dubbed the "Oxbridge of East African universities" and a producer of "world-class" research by Michael Jennings, a senior lecturer in the department of development studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies. The university has particular strengths in papers on HIV, non-tropical diseases and African political science, Jennings says.

But the Ugandan government invests only $300,000 a year in research, very little of which goes into humanities. "You are going to be under pressure (as an academic) to get a research proposal," Baryamureeba says. This puts academics under stress and makes for disjointed research as lines of enquiry stop and start, he explains.

Financial pressures

And, as the recent industrial dispute proves, salaries are low, Baryamureeba adds. "A professor in Makerere is earning about $1,200 a month. This is very little money."

This forces academics to make money on the side as private consultants, like the vice-chancellor. The pressure is most acute in the humanities.

Some of Makerere's students seem even more desperate. Among the huge haul of leaked US diplomatic cables that made worldwide headlines this year, Makerere is mentioned in a 2009 dispatch as a hunting ground for "intermediaries (who) locate young students for older men for sexual relationships".

According to the cable, these intermediaries are paid between $100 and $200 to recruit students for "sugar daddies" who promise students money for all kinds of items, including education.

Judith Nakayiza, a PhD student at Soas, taught at Makerere from 2005 after undergraduate study there. She notes the low staff-to-student ratio. "In some faculties it can go up to 200 students per lecturer or even more," she says.

Lecture halls, libraries and electronic resources have not been built fast enough to keep pace with the explosive growth in students, Nakayiza adds.

From 1997 to 2006, student numbers at Makerere increased from 14,400 to 34,500, yet the cohort paid for by the state edged up only slightly 6,710 to 6,948, according to a 2010 World Bank report, Financing Higher Education in Africa. The remaining students are self-funded.

Across Uganda, government funding for higher education has increased only moderately over the same decade. Divided up between more and more students, public funding per student has nearly halved.

Eager for higher education, Ugandans more than quadrupled their spending on private universities between 1997 and 2006, and now contribute more in fees than the government.

There are now 23 private universities in Uganda, compared with five public institutions, according to the British Council. And even at Makerere, which is public, state-funded students are far outnumbered by their fee-paying peers.

While this has filled a gap in the market, it "seems to have resulted in an uncoordinated rush to set up courses", says Hugh Moffatt, director of the British Council in Uganda.

Visiting a public university in the north of the country, Moffatt quizzed the acting vice-chancellor on why it needed to set up a new campus even though the institution was understaffed. "The response was 'if we don't set up there, Makerere will'," says Moffatt.

However, Yoweri Museveni, the Ugandan president, is solidly behind the new private providers - and indeed private enterprise generally. "The problem in Africa is that many people have not read Adam Smith," he declared at the opening of the latest private institution, Victoria University in Kampala.

The government will increase its spending on research from the current $300,000 a year, says Jessica Alupo, the education minister. But she declines to say exactly how much more will be invested.

Ugandan higher education is moving from the theoretical to the practical and the vocational, she explains. Subjects such as history are "what we used to do".

Constructive criticism only, please

If Alupo's comments will disappoint those looking for a broad curriculum in Uganda, her views on academic freedom may trouble scholars even further. "In Uganda our principle is that of freedom of speech," says Alupo. "But the criticism should be constructive."

Uganda's constitution demands that the president be treated as a "fountain of honour", Alupo says. She is "not sure" that universities are "allowed to go to the newspapers to criticise the head of state".

"If you do that you are not looking for a solution to the problem," she says. Alupo recommends that universities go to the president with a petition on their concerns.

Newspapers criticise the government freely, but Uganda is no multi-party democracy. Portraits of President Museveni, now serving his 26th year in power, hang in most official buildings.

"The president is fairly intolerant of criticism and some have questioned his commitment to democracy," says Jennings. "Academics have more leeway than opposition politicians."

This is borne out by a 2010 report Freedom in the World by the US thinktank Freedom House, which says that "academic freedom" is "generally respected", although the government is "increasingly intolerant of press freedom".

Yet the Ugandan academy still operates a "code of silence", according to Nabilah Naggayi Sempala, MP for Kampala City, opposition politician, and gender equality and human rights activist.

When she asked for research from Makerere scholars to back her arguments against the government, academics asked to remain anonymous, Sempala says. "The government is sceptical about having political debate at Makerere," she says, adding that academics are failing to "head the debate" about the country's future.

Although Uganda has one of the best, and perhaps freest, higher education systems in East Africa, it is one of the countries most in danger from a crisis of public funding for universities across the continent.

According to the World Bank, the number of higher education students in Africa has more than trebled from 2.7 million in 1991 to 9.3 million in 2006, while public investment for universities has merely doubled.

With no public student loan system in Uganda, reliance on fee income raises acute concern about access for poor students.

And Uganda is on the leading edge of this problem: it relies on private cash for 56 per cent of its funding, more than any other African country except Guinea-Bissau (75 per cent). In a league table of spending per student in Africa, the World Bank ranks it 36th out of 43.

"At worst," the World Bank predicts, as demand outstrips public money in Africa, "the lack of resources may lead to student protests and strikes." For the lecturers at Makerere, this African crunch point appears to have arrived.

david.matthews@tsleducation.com.

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