Young university’s rapid growth despite austerity

In three years the State University of Zanzibar has doubled its student intake, albeit from a low base – from 1,224 in 2011 to 2,489 in 2014. In so doing it has bust the myth that the small island of 1.3 million off the coast of Tanzania cannot support more than one university.

SUZA, as the university is called, started operating in 2001. Before the late 1990s, when two private higher education institutions were initiated, there was no provision on the semi-autonomous island and Zanzibar’s young people studied at universities in mainland Tanzania.

“The demand for skilled human capital necessary to drive the Zanzibar economy, from the government and the private sector, was growing,” says Dr Idris A Rai, who became the only public university’s third vice-chancellor in 2011.

“Establishing a university became one of the answers.”

First, the university prioritised training teachers to match the island’s expansion of secondary education. The first 53 students were recruited in 2002 into the only school, of education, arts and sciences, and still today the overwhelming majority of students pursue a bachelor in education.

The other academic unit was the Institute of Kiswahili and Foreign Languages, which merged with the university at its inception. In 2005 the Institute of Continuing Education, or ICE, was initiated followed in 2006 by the historical Teacher Training College – commonly referred to as Nkrumah – that is located at Beit-el-Ras campus.

Wealth of experience

Rai holds a PhD in networking and computer sciences from Telecom ParisTech, a word-class telecommunications school in France. He obtained his first degree from Bogazici University and masters in electrical and electronics engineering at Bilkent University, both in Turkey.

Rai worked as a research associate at Lancaster University for three years until 2007, when he joined Makerere University in Uganda as associate professor in communication networks .

He landed the vice-chancellorship of the State University of Zanzibar at the age of 39 years, after working in various leadership positions at Makerere including establishing the highly respected school of computing and informatics technology and becoming a deputy dean.

Rai amassed expertise in attracting external funding and establishing partnerships with private and educational institutions, raising over US$1 million in grants for Makerere from global companies and organisations such as UNESCO and the European Union.

He is a founding member of the Joint Institute for Mobile Innovations – a research initiative involving IBM, the University of Southern California, Makerere and Mobile Monday Kampala – and served as a regional coordinator of the EU’s EuroAfrica-ICT project promoting collaborative research on ICTs between African and European researchers.

He has published more than 30 research articles on areas of communication networks, and has won awards and memberships of international and American associations.

Time to restructure and grow

When he joined SUZA, Rai saw a need for reforms to diversify the programmes offered.

At the time the university had one school and two institutes – now it has five schools and two research centres. He oversaw the development and implementation of a restructuring plan that started in 2012.

“Restructuring was by no means a small task,” Rai told University World News.

“There was a need to reform academic structures in order to diversify programmes, define goals and clear roles for each position in the institutional establishment, and propose new administrative departments and research centres.”

SUZA now offers 30 programmes including one at PhD level, four masters, 12 bachelor programmes and the rest at diploma and certificate levels – a significant expansion from only eight programmes, none at masters or doctoral level, in 2011.

A PhD programme in Kiswahili, offered by diaspora academics living in various parts of the world, is among the new programmes. “To the best of our knowledge, this is the only PhD programme in Kiswahili that is taught in Kiswahili,” he said. A Kiswahili masters was offered from 2014.

Financial austerity measures

An audit revealed laxity in collecting student fees in previous years, resulting in many students accumulating debts for years.

Measures were implemented to make students pay up, and resulted in internally generated revenues rising threefold from Tsh950 million to Tsh2.88 billion (US$500,000 to US$1.5 million) from 2011 to 2014.

“We went on to introduce an inclusive budgetary system and tightened the financial control system that led to better planning and budget monitoring, and the result was significant institutional change and progress,” said Rai.

Academic and financial system reforms spilled into the committee system. “Committee systems are very popular for good governance and inclusive decision-making at universities, but more committees and more members for the committees were costly for us,” he said.

“The number of committees were reduced and an attendance sheet for each meeting was introduced to avoid the tendency of giving sitting allowances to staff who didn’t even attend meetings. The annual cost of running meetings dropped from Tsh104 million to Tsh47.6 million.

Rai led by example. “I always attend and chair meetings – that is primarily my job for which I am getting paid. The question I have posed and received no answer for, is why should I receive a sitting allowance for attending meetings?” said Rai.

“We tried to propose to abolish the system, but failed. However, since we still can’t see the justification for it, some of us don’t see a rationale for taking the allowance.”

Rai has been contributing his sitting allowance to the SUZA Secondary School, which was started when he joined the university. His total contribution has reached close to Tsh7 million for the past three years.

The teaching allowance per programme was slashed from Tsh23 million to Tsh4.4 million, despite expansion of the university. A minimum teaching load of 10 hours per week was introduced. Previously, the university spent a lot on part-time lecturers, especially from mainland Tanzania, while internal staff were teaching very few hours. The graduation cost per student went down from Tsh208,000 to Tsh56,000.

“Let me confess that the three-year experience of managing and controlling institutional finances has been one of the most challenging managerial tasks we have faced,” Rai said.

But the strategic handling of finances and budgetary systems and enforcement has enabled SUZA to implement most of its planned activities.

Sound financial management was followed by an increase in subsidy from the government, which been used to cover salaries for new recruits and for two minimum 40% salary increments in the past three years.

There has, however, been a 64% increase in three years in travelling costs, with more staff travelling to attend meetings, seminars, conferences or training. SUZA needs to learn from the experiences of other well-established institutions, said Rai.

Through collaborations and responding to international calls, the university has raised total grants of US$8.6 million for research. Rai has also been able to mobilise resources for institutional capacity development and improvement initiatives for more than 50 staff currently pursuing masters or PhD degrees across the world.

Of 141 academic staff at SUZA, 19 have a PhD, 81 a masters degree and 41 a bachelor degree. There are 90 administrative and laboratory staff and 48 support staff. Staff development is of “paramount importance”, says Rai.

Leadership and future focus

Within three years, the number of the university’s international partners has risen from six to 32. The partnerships most commonly involve student exchanges, primarily to enable students from other universities to enrol in Swahili programmes at SUZA.

“Swahili is our heritage, and is the area where we lead the world,” says Rai.

Increasingly the university is offering joint programmes with universities elsewhere. For instance, the BSc computer science programme is twinned with VIT University in India, and discussions are under way with Agha Khan University in Pakistan to jointly offer a diploma in early childhood development from 2015.

“For me there is a clear line that differentiates management from leadership. The requisite of good leadership is the resolve to drive changes. It’s about execution – making things happen to realise a certain vision,” he says.

Rai believes in “enduring leadership – a leadership philosophy which considers an integrated notion of leadership where leadership roles are evenly distributed at all levels of organisation as opposed to a traditional philosophy of leadership which focuses on an individual, an ideal super-hero at the top of the organisation who alone is expected to drive the institution forward.”

The university’s main challenge in the past three years has been mobilising sufficient resources for meaningful infrastructural development. A number of proposals for SUZA’s development have been submitted to development partners, but with no success.

“Development and progress often are seen as impossible because they are disguised within one’s ability to adapt, willingness to change, and hard work. Sustainable changes require leadership support and resolve,” Rai says.