East African universities should not be begging from governments

I am commenting on the headline article which was published in The Daily Monitor of Uganda on Thursday August 22, 2013. It was entitled “Get us land investor, Makerere begs Museveni”.
 Isaac Sebakijje
Isaac Sebakijje

I am commenting on the headline article which was published in The Daily Monitor of Uganda on Thursday August 22, 2013. It was entitled “Get us land investor, Makerere begs Museveni”.

In that national paper, it was reported that the Vice Chancellor of the famous Makerere University wrote to the President of Uganda Yoweri Museveni asking him to find an investor for the institution’s idle land. 

For over a decade now, the debate for privatisation of Makerere University has captured many newspaper headlines both in and outside of Uganda.

The idea for and against this proposal has been richly discussed and numerous recommendations tabled. Makerere University is a 90-year old institution once referred to as the Harvard of Africa.

This university was recently ranked amongst the most elite universities in Africa, by webometrics, ranking fourth in Africa. Nobody denies the fact that the university is dogged by fundamental challenges including the current labour strike.

Those challenges are not insurmountable over time but require collective and innovative consultations in order to conceive solutions. 

However, the option of Makerere’s top leadership “begging” the nation’s leader for a land investor as published in the headline above is perplexing, ill advised and devoid of vision.

The demand for education services in African countries is rising at a faster rate than governments can supply. In these austere times, we know that governments are finding it challenging to increase their financial budgets for education.

As a result, education industry investment forums usually are held, bringing together practitioners, investors, and regulators to address this deficit.

Entrepreneurs and philanthropists bring new perspectives and innovative solutions to the education sector.

These private individuals and organisations usually forge partnerships with institutions that demonstrate strong growth prospects with best practice. Such partnerships are not limited to funding but also include provision of advisory services and technical assistance that can strengthen the institutions’ creditworthiness.

Has Makerere included the current young innovative minds found on or off its campus in the decision making process? Also, Uganda is slowly entering an era of brain gain as it departs from its turbulent past.

Has Makerere tapped into a pool of professional Ugandans in the diaspora who are well versed in the mechanics of institutional funding? These are opportunities that Makerere University and other cash strapped education institutions in East Africa should be pro-actively exploring.

All it takes is visionary leadership and non-partisan management capacity.

Every Vice Chancellor, Deputy Vice-Chancellor or Dean of Makerere University and similar institutions in East Africa should be lobbying for better government regulatory reforms pertaining to education to ensure that they are conducive to investors.

The way the government designs regulatory policies determines the ease or difficulty for those who are looking to invest money and other resources in the education system. This is the foundation of academic and financial autonomy of universities because it promotes accountability and transparency required by investors.

Makerere is considered to have some of the best human resources pool on their sprawling campus that can devise and compile marketable proposals for potential stakeholders. 

The university also maintains global connectivity where leading entities can assist institutions like Makerere that are facing liquidity constraints.   According to the article, Makerere lists ownership of four acres of land in Kololo, 14 acres of land in Makindye, 30 acres of land in Katalemwa and Kasangati and others.

All these are external prime sites in addition to the main campus which is comprised of 321 acres [120 hectares, or 1,200,000 m2] of underutilised grounds.

In other words, Makerere University is sitting on a goldmine of prime undeveloped parcels of land in its portfolio. Makerere must leverage these resources and assets to appeal to national and global capital.

It defies logic to think that the only way they can utilise that land is to “beg” their president for investors. We must discourage this type of perpetual dependency from East Africa’s mindset if we are to develop.

Why doesn’t the university provide the petrol in order to get the vehicle moving?

In 2013, a new chapter in Africa’s economic history is opening up based on various economic, political and social reforms that are sweeping through the continent. 

The wise investors have already chosen Africa, especially East Africa. Africa is the future and the future is already the present. Makerere University and similar institutions in our East African Community must grasp the realities and necessities of change.

Our establishments must market themselves in a way that establishes a unique financial attractiveness using all the resources and assets they posses. According to economic experts, there are significant opportunities in Africa’s education sector at all levels.

At the moment, there are not many investors, if any, willing to hop the flight to Makerere based on this display of seemingly hopeless outcry. Makerere needs to understand the private sector thinking and start building a mature and defensible business model that shows the return on investment.

The same goes for similar institutions in our East African Community.

The writer is a hotelier and tourism professional.


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