Op-ed – Makerere University is closed. Now what?

By Andrew Barungi

Makerere University was once synonymous with prestige. It was the place where top performing students were admitted, and where some of the best workforce were produced. It was regarded as the Harvard of Africa. Those who went through Makerere were revered by their peers. They were proud to declare that they went to the “Ivory Tower”.

Today, Makerere is for the most part known for strikes by students, lecturers and non-teaching staff. A recent strike by lecturers over unpaid incentive arrears was joined by students, leading to the closure of the university by President Yoweri Museveni on 1 November 2016.

Unfortunately, closing Makerere will not solve the persistent problems facing the institution.  It’s important to remember that this is not the first time the university is being closed. Previous closures were made in 2006 and 2013. What is so different about this one?

One of the reasons advanced for closing the university was to protect property. While this could have been the most obvious solution, government should have first remembered its obligation of protecting property of Ugandans as mandated by law. Security forces such as police are paid by taxpayers to fulfill this mandate, and if they had maintained law and order at the university as students and lecturers protested; relevant stakeholders would have found other solutions to the problem rather than a shutdown.

Additionally, Article 30 of the Constitution of Uganda states that “all persons have a right to education”. The persistent problems at Makerere should not be an excuse to deny Ugandans and foreign students who study at the institution, a right to education. In fact, Uganda recognised this right by ratifying the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1987. Article 13.2 (c) of the Covenant states that, “Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education”.

Government should have also thought about the financial and other inconveniences that students and parents would incur as a result of closing the university. It’s a known fact that Makerere University is host to students from diverse backgrounds and origins. The sudden closure of the university meant that students who hail from outside Kampala and out of Uganda, had to look for money for bus fair or air ticket to transport themselves back home.

Closing the university in the middle of the semester also meant that those who had paid tuition and were waiting to sit exams or clear to graduate, cannot be sure of what will happen next. Why should students pay the cost of failures of the university and government that oversees it?

It’s apparent that government has not been investing sufficient resources in education, and especially in key institutions of higher learning such as Makerere. For instance, while, neighboring countries such as Burundi and Rwanda invest $794 and $660 per student respectively, Uganda spends only $415 per student, even when its economy is bigger than that of the two countries. In fact, the State of Education in Africa Report, 2015 by The Africa-America Institute notes that while enrollment in institutions of higher learning in Africa has more than doubled between 2000 and 2010, significant investment in education still needs to be done.

It’s also on record that government and Makerere University management have on several occasions made financial promises to the university lecturers and either delayed to fulfil them, or reneged on them altogether. This has to a large part, contributed to the cycle of strikes, promises, failed promises and closure or more strikes.

In this impasse, there are no winners but only losers.

The problem at Makerere can only be resolved if all stakeholders are willing to honour their obligations and commitments. Are lecturers willing to teach? Are students ready to learn? Are parents and guardians willing to pay tuition on time for the smooth running of the university? Is the government submitting adequate financial aid and other resources to aid teaching and learning at the university? Is the university authority managing the university resources and affairs transparently? Is the person/office responsible for overseeing the fulfillment of all these obligations doing their part?

These questions could have been pondered on and actions taken by the relevant authorities without closing the university and making an already bad situation worse.

Makerere University can rise and claim its place once again and in full, but everyone has to be willing to play a part in making this happen.

Mr Barungi is a social scientist

Twitter: @andybk82

andybk82 [at] yahoo [dot] co [dot] uk

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