Universities phase out courses with few students

Ugandan universities are phasing out courses with few students – except science courses and those not available elsewhere or where a university may have a comparative advantage.

“It is acceptable for a university to phase out courses if the senate decides, and to restart them when it is viable,” said Professor John Opuda-Asibo, executive director of the Uganda National Council for Higher Education.

Universities only had to notify the council and would-be students in advance through the media, he said.

“All universities are serving the country in addressing human resource gaps and in generation of knowledge for development. It’s more efficient for universities to focus on programmes in which they have comparative advantages,” said Dr Vincent A Ssembatya, director of quality assurance at Makerere University.

Dwindling resources

University officials said the move was inevitable in the face of dwindling resources, and where gaps between cost and funding could no longer be bridged by the government so as to allow the entire curriculum to be run regardless of numbers.

“Universities run courses with few numbers, or even a single student, deploying a number of lecturers to teach all the units in addition to all attendant inputs required to offer quality education, yet the costs are not fully subsidised,” Ssembatya told University World News.

Today in public universities, on average only 15% of students are state-sponsored. Attempts to increase fees for privately sponsored students land universities in trouble, including student strikes.

“The university runs all its curriculum below the ‘unit cost’ and all efforts to charge that cost have been met with a lot of resistance, especially from students,” said Ssembatya.

At Makerere University, course reviews will realign programmes to eliminate duplication and will mainstream entrepreneurship, gender, use of ICTs and internationalisation.

Trends in past students' choices are playing a major role in the reviews, in light of the emergence of other universities that can offer programmes.

While some courses may not have ‘enough’ students they will not be scrapped, considering that very few universities in Uganda have the capacity to teach courses in, for instance, chemistry, physics, geology or zoology. Programmes like dentistry only exist at Makerere.

Some critics have accused universities of using unscientific criteria to make decisions – even though they teach scientific methods.

“There is a lot of impulsive and intuitive decision-making. How in the first place did they decide to start offering those courses? What is the analytical evidence on which they are basing scrapping courses?” asked Ambrose Kibuuka, a member of the council at Kampala International University.

Reasons for reviews

A review of the curriculum is mandatory for universities every three to five years, to allow for curricula to adapt to changes in society and the economy, which universities purport to serve.

Ssembtya said the reviews helped Makerere to achieve more efficient use of resources and improve quality.

At Makerere, each programme specifies the minimum class size at the time of inception. The average class size is 100 students but some programmes – such as dental technology – have a class size of 11 students, which was the minimum specified at inception.

Some courses have had student numbers dwindle far below the specified class size. This translates into deficits in the university budget, especially in cases where the government does not sponsor students, said Ssembatya.

However, higher education experts have said that in many cases universities only want to offer courses that are popular or ‘demand-driven’, instead of creating demand for courses.

“Universities are supposed to be thought leaders. Through research, universities are supposed to anticipate the future needs of society and proactively create courses that address those needs, even when the masses do not see such needs at the moment,” said Kibuuka.

There were some courses that were necessary but not popular. “We can only make specific verdicts after critically analysing each course on a case-by-case basis,” Kibuuka concluded.