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Higher education is due for radical restructuring

The visitation committee appointed by President Museveni to investigate the problems of Makerere University and higher education in general, following persistent strikes, last week hosted a public dialogue to discuss the way forward.

It was a wonderful idea to get both ordinary people and experts to make their contribution to this very important debate. From press reports, the organisers couldn’t have been disappointed as the event was marked by candid and well-informed debates.

It is now generally acknowledged that at the heart of problems afflicting Makerere University and other public universities is funding. The government maintains a stranglehold on these universities but only pays a small fraction of the money needed to run them, leaving them deep in debt and at the mercy of internally-generated funds from private students.

The last time Makerere University attempted to raise tuition to fill the gap left by government’s under-funding more than 10 years ago, the administration was forced to back down following a student strike.

Several reports have highlighted the unit cost of educating a university student, which is far higher than what is being provided today, but the government has torpedoed every effort to raise student fees.

There is no doubt quality university education is very expensive. The government should either listen to the experts and allow universities to raise fees accordingly, or fill the funding gaps itself.

Alongside sorting out the funding question, our higher education needs significant restructuring to enable it cope with the country’s development needs.

As keynote speaker and deputy Bank of Uganda governor Dr Louis Kasekende argued, the minimum entry requirements for university students should be raised so that the numbers can go down as quality inevitably rises.

Today, going to university appears to be an end in itself yet recent experience indicates majority of the graduates will not find a job for many years.

This is because our education system is producing many low-calibre people who lack the requisite skills needed to survive in our struggling economy.

To address this, the government should leave universities to raise the fees they need to run efficiently and effectively and, instead, focus more resources toward a robust post-secondary vocational education system.

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