Makerere University was started in 1922. The 2nd and 3rd Universities to open in Uganda are Islamic University in Uganda in 1988 and Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST) in 1989. As of today MUST comes next to Makerere University in terms of research output. Makerere University is 94 years old where as MUST is 27 years old. Today Uganda has over 45 universities. The annual research output of Makerere University is more than that of all universities in Uganda combined. This is expected since Makerere University has more PhD holders than all Universities in Uganda combined. It takes time to build a reputable research institution. Makerere University is the heart of research and innovation in Uganda. It also follows that the death of Makerere is synonymous to the death of the national research agenda of Uganda. Research is what differentiates a university from a high school or college. Even by definition a ‘’ university (Latin: universitas, “a whole”, “a corporation”) is an institution of higher (or tertiary) education and research which grants academic degrees in various subjects at undergraduate and postgraduate levels.’’
The best Universities in the world including universities in Africa like University of Cape Town and Pretoria University never close their research arm even when they are closed. This is because research is continuous and each second of a day counts. Universities do research all year round. Ground breaking scientific discoveries or innovations are as a result of several years of continuous intensive research that keeps laboratories, test sites and libraries among others open throughout the year and over the years. In short a University is ‘a living organ’ and it has to be fed at all times just like a human being.
One of the things we are going to regret as a country in years to come is the closer of the research arm of Makerere University. The negative impact will be gradual and it shall be more pronounced in the medium and long term.
One lesson we can learn from history is that the effects of the actions of President Ida Amin Dada that led to the exit of several prominent scholars from Makerere University are still felt even today.
There is empirical evidence that shows that research output is tied to Gross National Product (GNP) i.e. the higher the research output the higher the GNP. Although this also depends on the kind of research that is being done and how it translates into innovative products, services or processes. Thus it is not surprising that Africa is the smallest continent in terms of both GNP and research out.
All the companies that started as startups in Silicon Valley emerged out of research by either students or staff or both. Every serious ground breaking discovery or innovation emerges out of intensive research. For example, more than 40 % of United States (US) taxes come from companies that emerged out of Silicon Valley. When you kill research, you kill innovation, stifle job creation and weaken the economy in the long run. Uganda cannot benefit from a knowledge economy while undermining research.
I appeal to government to allow Makerere University staff and research students to access offices, laboratories, workshops and library among others to resuscitate the research arm of Makerere University before its too late.
I am cognizant of the fact that the government would like to teach a lesson to staff of Makerere University and other public universities never to strike again. However, human beings are good at developing coping mechanisms. By the time Makerere University opens almost every staff will have started something new which might he hard to leave. This might include having another job either on fulltime or part-time basis and starting a business. Any of these will take away time from their main roles at Makerere University and it may in the long run negatively affect Makerere University.
It is also important to note that good employees never leave the institution, they leave their managers. Don’t be surprised to find that by the time Makerere University re-opens some of its best staff will have left for other rewarding opportunities elsewhere.
The research programmes/ projects at Makerere University have already greatly suffered and it may be hard for Makerere University to take lead in regional research programmes/ projects due to the uncertainty about the continuity of its leadership, management and availability of the resources. It has taken Makerere University 94 years to build a research profile but it will take less than a year to kill it and one easy way is to keep it closed for a few more months.
Every day some continuing students of Makerere University are joining other universities in Uganda and abroad, and this will also affect Makerere University financially when it re-opens. Let us face it, some of the costs like salaries have remained the same despite the closure i.e. once the University re-opens it shall have to pay the salary arrears. The parents and other countries are slowly losing trust in sending their children and students to Makerere University. This perception has to be reversed and keeping Makerere University closed is not helping.
I do recognize that both the University Council and government have strong reasons that compelled them to close the University, which we all appreciate. But there are also organs like Parliament that can take swift action and empower government to re-open the university. Problems of Makerere University are not new to parliament. As part of the comprehensive solution to the problems, several amendments to the Universities and Tertiary Institutions Act 2001 as amended were presented before to Social Services Committee and later to the Education and Sports Committee of Parliament. No action has been taken up to today.
Let me end with the word of God from Luke 9:59-60: 59 Jesus said to another man, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60 Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
The author is a Former Vice Chancellor of Makerere University and an Expert on Higher Education.