Sweeping university reforms to emphasise innovation

Uganda’s nine public universities are set to undergo substantial restructuring as the government prepares to implement reforms recommending the formation of ‘innovation universities’.

The recommendations are contained in a report commissioned in 2011 in the wake of a staff pay strike at the country’s flagship Makerere University.

The task team that produced the report was chaired by Professor Francis Omaswa, an internationally respected cardiovascular surgeon and academic who has played leading roles in Uganda’s health ministry and global health agencies, and is executive director of the African Center for Global Health and Social Transformation.

The report was presented to Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda in February last year. Last month 100 copies of the report were printed and handed over to government at an official launch.

A central tenet of the report is the proposed establishment of ‘innovation universities’ as engines of industrialisation and economic growth. University-industry-government partnerships will form a key component of the new institutions which combine research, teaching, community service and commercialisation in their missions and operations.

In a statement, the government said it would appoint an expanded inter-ministerial technical committee to develop a government white paper arising out of the Omaswa report.

While the Omaswa task force focused on Makerere University, the resultant white paper will apply to all public universities, according to Professor Sandy Stevens Tickodri-Togboa, the minister for higher education, science and technology.

Uganda has nine public universities, two public degree-granting institutions and 40 private universities or higher education institutions.

Some Omaswa changes implemented

Parts of the Omaswa report have already been implemented in public universities in the form of restructuring of courses and programmes.

Some courses have even been scrapped at Makerere University, while at Mbarara University of Science and Technology or MUST, the faculty of development studies has been disbanded with elements of the programme being incorporated across all disciplines.

In a statement, the government said the faculty had grown so large that it threatened to derail the original vision and mission of MUST as Uganda’s first university of science and technology. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni spearheaded the establishment of MUST in 1989-90.

The government is optimistic that the Omaswa report will harness Museveni’s directive to restructure universities as well as “transform higher education with innovation into vehicles of industrialisation, employment-wealth creation, inclusive and sustainable development and socio-economic transformation in line with Uganda Vision 2040,” said Tickodri-Togboa.

The Omaswa report was the product of wide consultation in Uganda and other countries.

Investigations of best practice took place at the University of Nairobi in Kenya; University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania; Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia; and the University of Ghana at Legon. The task team also consulted Tsinghua University in China; Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Bar-Ilan University in Israel; and Duke University in North Carolina, United States.

Proposed reforms

Among the proposed reforms is stronger management.

“Day-to-day management needs to be strengthened. Management should respond to the needs of various stakeholders. During our research some students said unless they threaten a strike nothing gets done,” Omaswa told the press conference.

The report also proposes reforms in the university’s top policy-making body, the council, including cuts to the number of council members.

Based on visits to neighbouring East African universities, the task force found that the most competent governance arrangement comprised a small, professional group of people. The practice in Ugandan universities has been to have a council comprising about 24 representative stakeholders. The report recommends cutting that number to 13 advisers.

On the issue of leadership, the report recommends that all public universities have a professional body to vet candidates and appoint them according to merit rather than popularity.

Currently, university vice-chancellors are elected but the Omaswa task force has suggested that this divides the university community and prevents leaders from being objective towards those who elected them.

On the issue of financing, the report proposes new sources of revenue generation, such as investment in land, so that universities do not rely solely on fees. The government of Uganda contributes only 0.3% of gross domestic product to higher education compared to Kenya and Tanzania which each contribute 1%.

According to Tickodri-Togboa, there are already innovations and inventions from Uganda’s public universities in the pipeline.

For instance, projects undertaken by Kiira Motors Corporation, a government-owned motor vehicle manufacturing company, are to come on line by 2018 and there are also prospects for manufacturing ‘Kayoola’, Africa’s first solar bus. The latter has already set the pace as a green mobility technology innovation towards sustainable development in Africa.

Other innovations with export potential are the portable hand-held soil fertility (nitrogen) testing machine made by two Makerere University agriculture lecturers, and an electronically controlled gravity feed infusion device invented by the Uganda Industrial Research Institute.