On Friday November 9, 2018, Uganda Martyrs University (UMU, Nkozi) celebrates 25 years of existence.
Given the multi-layered difficulties of sustaining private institutions of higher learning in Uganda, UMU deserves a pat on the back for having made it this far through the storms. Certainly, there are scars to show that it hasn’t been without battles and bruises.
In standing with her motto (Virtute et Sapientia Duc Mundum – In virtue and wisdom, lead the world), one of UMU’s distinguishing elements is how it places ethics at the center of her educational mission. It is integrated in every course taught at the university, especially at undergraduate level. The idea is that no matter what education one may receive, without ethics, it cannot improve our society.
Uganda has had enough lessons on this, although we are slow to heed. Of course, teaching ethics at university without attendant efforts at ethical training and habituation into virtuousness, right from the family all through primary and secondary education, may render university efforts sterile. As the Luganda saying goes, akaakyama amamera tekago lolwa (it is hard to straighten a mature benttree).
It is not easy, though, for a private university to stick to educational values such as those that UMU espouses. I have been part of the last eleven years of UMU’s journey, and it is a mixed story of successes, challenges and crippling trials.
Amidst these, it takes deep innovativeness for a private university to survive, maintain quality and remain relevant. Temptations for compromise are increasing because of the widespread commercialisation, the attendant disregard for institutional/professional ethics, and simplistic market-oriented inclinations in higher education.
It sometimes seems foolhardy to stick to the right educational practices where survival is at threat and in a national environment, where wrong rewards highly. As is said, a drowning man is not bothered by rain.
How do you maintain strict academic regulations with regard to lecture attendance, scholarly rigour in course assignments and student research where such a reputation becomes a disincentive for students to join your university yet there are many others that can easily bend the standards in pursuit of student numbers?
How do you attract and retain the best brains in staffing where you can’t afford to pay half as much as public universities and other competing civil society agencies? Yet, by their very nature, universities are meant to be staffed by top brains.
This is not only on the assumption that highly intelligent people make the best teachers; that is debatable. The key consideration is that universities are expected to generate new knowledge, not to simply transfer what is produced by others. It is, therefore, disastrous for universities to thrive on cheap labour.
That would mean that they go with whoever meets the ‘basic’ academic requirements and can take the little pay that they offer, not targeting the competitive best. Yet the principle of productivity remains: ‘garbage in, garbage out.’ In the past, it was widely known that only the best were retained and groomed to teach at university.
Ideally, one had to have a first-class first degree or, at the minimum, a second upper. But in many of our universities today, you can as well find those who graduated with second lower degrees among academic staff!
University recruitment processes have not been spared of the national malaise of tribalism, nepotism, cronyism and bribery. Yet, we still act shocked that research productivity is going down at many of our universities and that the quality of graduates is diminishing over the years!
If some lecturers can’t write a well-articulated essay, what do we expect of their products? Should what Terry Eagleton characterised as “the death of universities as centers of critique” surprise us?
Do we expect to harvest jackfruits from black jack (bidens pilosa or ssere)? It is indeed true that the work of university teachers (private and public) is getting harder over the years due to the declining quality of students from our secondary schools (despite high grades).
Our examination-oriented system plus the conveyer belt approach (automatic promotion) that came with UPE and USE are killing education in this country while we look on. However, universities, too, have played a part in compromising quality and rendering many of their products unemployable.
Uganda’s youth unemployment crisis is not only because opportunities are limited but also that some graduates are actually not worth employing. After half-baking them and killing their imagination, we only forget to add to their transcripts: ‘employ at your own risk.’
But, ultimately, the entire country pays for all these commissions and omissions in the education sector. We pay through poor engineering (collapsing buildings, roads…), delays and failures in services due to incompetence, ill-thought-out policies, unethical leadership, incompetent teachers, business failures, innovation deficiencies, and so on.
No education system collapses alone; it falls together with its society and it lands heavily on it. All these challenges come to mind as we celebrate the contributions that Uganda Martyrs University has made and still aspires to make.
We invite everyone to honestly reflect with us about the direction that our education system should take, not only at UMU but in the entire country. Both products from private and public universities end up in the same society, hence we cannot afford to neglect any.
As part of the celebrations, the university will be launching a 500-page book titled: Higher Education for African Challenges of the 21st Century. In 14 chapters by academics from within and outside, it discusses a number of issues and makes suggestions for better.
This modest initiative ought to be taken to the national level towards broader dialogue that should lift our education system out of what we have for so long decried without much practical effort towards changing. It all starts with our acceptance and commitment.
The author works with the Center for African Studies at Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi.