President orders indefinite shutdown of top university

Makerere University, Uganda’s oldest and most prestigious higher education institution and one of the best in Africa, has been closed until further notice following a directive by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

The directive, signed on 1 November, is aimed at “guaranteeing the safety of persons and property” in the context of the latest round of strikes by academic staff protesting the non-payment of incentive allowances. Students joined the two-week strike last week, protesting against lack of tuition.

According to a report by The Observer, a Kampala-based newspaper, police and military personnel were deployed to try to contain students who went on the rampage, burning tyres, closing roads and destroying traders' property.

Unpaid allowances

Makerere University lecturers are demanding UGX32 billion (US$9.2 million) in allowances which have not been paid over the past eight months. An offer by the university council to give lecturers one month’s pay was refused.

Museveni warned striking lecturers against holding his government to ransom when there were other urgent development issues to be met. The government has not refused to pay and staff should be patient, he said.

Weary students have expressed their dismay and called on parties to seek an alternative to closure of the campus and hostels, which comes as students prepare for end-of-year examinations.

Fifth-year student and University Guild President Roy Ssemboga said the students are set to petition Minister of Education and Sports Janet Museveni over the closure.

Allegations of mismanagement

The Makerere University Academic Staff Association blames the persistent strikes on poor governance and mismanagement of internal funds. According to The Observer, a report to parliament last year by Auditor General John Muwanga revealed that the university flouted financial accountability rules with a series of questionable financial transactions.

However, Makerere University Vice-Chancellor Professor Ddumba Ssentamu maintains that the key cause of lack of funds is underfunding.

The government of Uganda contributes 0.3% of gross domestic product, or GDP, to higher education, compared to Kenya and Tanzania which each contribute 1% of GDP.

Makerere is one of nine public universities in Uganda and is the alma mater of several post-independence African leaders, including Milton Obote (Uganda) and Julius Nyerere and Benjamin Mkapa (Tanzania).

Task force recommendations ignored

In an effort to find a lasting solution to persistent strikes in Uganda’s public universities, the government commissioned a task force chaired by Professor Francis G Omaswa in the wake of a staff strike in September 2011 at Makerere University.

But none of the recommendations contained in the report arising out of the task team have been implemented.

Asked for comment on the recent closure of Makerere University, Omaswa said: “Our report has all the answers to Makerere's chronic challenges. Please ask government why they have not responded to it or acted on the findings and recommendations in this report,” Omaswa told University World News.

The task force consulted widely within the country and benchmarked best practices from the University of Nairobi, University of Dar es Salaam, Addis Ababa University, and the University of Ghana at Legon. It also benchmarked Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and Duke University in the United States.

Alternative revenue streams

A copy of the final report was presented to government in 2014 and another in 2015. Among its recommendations is that Uganda’s nine public universities should start to generate new sources of revenue generation to supplement government contributions and private students’ tuition fees.

The report suggested that universities invest in property for additional revenue. It also recommended fast-tracking the formation of Makerere University endowment fund and Makerere Holding Company, which have since been formed to generate resources beyond government subvention.

According to Minister of State for Higher Education, Science and Technology Professor Sandy Stevens Tickodri-Togboa, there are already innovations and inventions in the pipeline at Makerere to generate revenue.