Prof. John Ddumba-Ssentamu was sworn in last week as the new vice-chancellor of Makerere University.
Ddumba takes over at a time when Makerere University is struggling to put academic standards back up amidst several challenges. FRANCIS KAGOLO interviewed him about his vision for the 90-year-old institution
QUESTION: You have lectured and held senior management positions for over three decades. You were around when the university was crumbling. Why should we take you seriously now?
ANSWER: You should take me seriously because my past speaks for itself. I headed the economics department and transformed it from a department under the faculty of social sciences into an institute, then a faculty, and now a college. This has been my biggest achievement. We used internally generated funds to put up the faculty’s buildings.
Economics has the only video conferencing facility at Makerere University. The crumbling you are talking about was not in my faculty.
What will be your priorities in the first six months?
In a month I should have written a comprehensive report about the status of this university, which I can use to effectively engage the Government to find solutions. I also have to ensure that we put in place an integrated strategic plan for the university.
The one we have now was made when the colleges had not been established. Then each college came up with its own plan. Within the first month, I will consult colleagues to ensure that we complete the strategic plan and set the way forward. I will also ensure that the university’s Change Management
Committee is given full support to take off. It is this committee that proposed reforms in areas of academics, human resources management, and administration, which we must implement if the university is to improve.
The issue of top-up allowances for staff is also serious. There are scenarios where some staff get allowances, while others do not. I cannot say that I am going to raise the allowances, but I will pursue a strategy where each staff member gets their top-up allowance however small it may be. This is crucial for staff motivation.
In your acceptance speech, you pledged to restore Makerere University to its former glory. How do you intend to achieve this?
As a university, our core business is academics. What is wrong with academics at Makerere?
One is that the current staff-to-students ratio is too high. The solution is either increasing staff members or reducing student enrolment.
However, these options are equally difficult; increasing staff requires adequate funds, which we are lacking at the moment, while reducing student numbers means losing revenue. As of now, we shall maintain the status-quo as we keep engaging the Government to take over the university’s entire wage bill.
If this happens, we will be able to save some funds, which we can use to recruit more staff and put up more infrastructure, especially lecture rooms. The Government can also help us in infrastructure development. When the College of Agriculture moves to Kabanyolo, we shall get more space at the main campus.
The second aspect is that of research. Research in Makerere is not equitably done. There is more research going on in sciences than in the humanities because that is where the Government and donors put more money. We can get more funds for research if we put the students’ functional fees to its intended use.
The money the students pay for research should be used for that. We need to support staff in humanities to undertake more research. It is not money only that will transform this university.
I am going to consult all departments so we can come up with the right priorities. Makerere is ranked 11th in Africa on the web, but this does not show on the ground. The image of the university has to improve and this should not take long. Most things require consultation and feedback, but there are a few others like orderliness, for example the removal of kiosks from certain places, which I can do as the chief executive.
We also need to reconstruct the perimeter wall that collapsed, to improve security. We may not achieve this in one financial year but it can be done in phases.
The university is embroiled in internal cliques and wrangles. How do you plan to manage these challenges?
I do not see any cliques. They used to talk about the Masaka clique. I come from Masaka but I do not know the chairman of that clique and I have never attended any meeting. The cliques are imaginary. Let us focus on building the institution. If wrangles ever break up, we can talk to those involved. People should not deny where they come from.
I received congratulatory messages from Emmanuel Cardinal Wamala, Kabaka Ronald Mutebi and Archbishop Dr. Cyprian Lwanga. But not even the Kabaka sounded sectarian. They all asked me to work for the good of the country and uplift Makerere, not Buganda.
If we streamline the way we manage our finances, ensure effective transfer of funds to the colleges and be accountable, we shall not have those wrangles. For instance, secondyear students have never received their identity cards yet they paid for them. This is lack of accountability. Starting from the vicechancellor, to the students, everybody should be accountable.
One of Makerere’s key challenges is inadequate funding exacerbated by financial mismanagement. How will you tackle this?
This will not be easy. Currently half of the staff salaries come from the Government and the remaining half from internally generated revenue. We are praying that the Government takes over the entire wage bill so that we can direct internal revenue to other core activities like equipping laboratories. Within the first six months, we should have streamlined our expenditure and reduced wastages. For instance, the electricity bulk purchase system reduced the cost of electricity because power is paid for centrally by the university.
But now there are many commercial entities like banks and other units which do not refund the university, not because they do not want to, but because nobody has bothered to collect the money. I know streamlining finances is difficult because people will not be happy but we have to do it if we are to improve the university. But still we cannot rely on tuition revenue alone because it is very unstable.
I intend to work closely with my deputy for finance, the university secretary and the directorate of investment to ensure that the directorate becomes relevant by implementing the investment policy. We need an endowment fund and to put our land to good economic use.
The university was closed for over two months during Prof. Venansius Baryamureeba’s tenure due to staff and students’ strikes. How will you avert strikes?
Staff have been striking due to low salaries but also because of the management’s pretence.
We should stop pretending that Makerere has enough money to handle all its needs.
There has been a problem of diverting funds from budget votes like top-up allowances to cover-up whenever there is a shortfall in the wage bill. Sometimes funds have not been transferred to units because of this.
We should be frank to the Governmentand transparent to staff members whenever there is no money. I do not see any staff member who can go on strike if you are open, transparent and accountable to them. Through my chancellor and the University Council, I will try to convince the Government to take over the entire wage bill, and also increase salaries.
I am aware of the challenge ahead, but I also know that we can achieve something if we engage the Government in a non-crisis time.
What reforms did Baryamureeba introduce that you intend to carry forward?
Most of the reforms at Makerere are a result of the University Research, Finance and Administrative Reforms Committee which Prof. Livingstone Luboobi set up in April 2009.
The committee suggested various reforms to improve efficiency in all university activities. I will not deviate from the reforms. Baryamureeba decides and acts quickly, which is also my nature. I hate people who do not take decisions.
He implemented the system of issuing transcripts on graduation day, a process that began with setting up computer systems during Luboobi’s term. Although some people want us to revert to faculties, I believe we must overcome the challenges facing the collegiate system instead of dismantling colleges.
Your concluding remarks?
We want to forget the past and start on a clean slate. Let the past be our experience, but we should not dwell on it. If there were cliques before, let us forget them. None of us is bigger than the institution. Let us try to build a system that can outlive anybody.
Makerere is a national institution of 90 years now; nobody would want to see it go down. Rebuilding Makerere cannot be the work of one person alone. It must be everybody: the Government, the University Council, Senate, the entire staff and, and, of course, the media, as long as there is clean leadership.