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Worrying state of private universities, a big concern

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Added 28th January 2020 07:41 AM

One key finding from the National Council of Higher Education (NCHE) reports from time to time is the phenomenon of struggling universities.

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One key finding from the National Council of Higher Education (NCHE) reports from time to time is the phenomenon of struggling universities.

By Mesharch Katusiimeh Rwebiita (PhD)

The New Vision on Wednesday, September 18, 2019 (page 9) reported that two private universities operating on provisional licenses have been closed by the National Council for Higher Education (NCHE). This is worrying but not surprising.

One key finding from the National Council of Higher Education (NCHE) reports from time to time is the phenomenon of struggling universities.

Most universities especially private ones face a number of problems, prominent among which are: funding, lack of permanent academic staff and poor infrastructure among others. Funding is the biggest problem and it is the major reason we are witnessing calls by owners of private universities for the government to take over the institutions.

Kabale University was private but owned by the people of Kigezi. But the government of the Republic of Uganda took it over in 2015 after experiencing financial challenges. It is now one of the best-managed public universities in Uganda. Mountains of the moon requested to be taken over and the government accepted and they are now in transition working out modalities. Busoga University owned by Busoga Diocese Church of Uganda was closed by the National Council of Higher Education.

Busoga politicians led by the Speaker of Parliament run to the President and consequently, the Head of State promised government intervention. Negotiations are on-going between the government and the Church of Uganda how this can be implemented. Other private universities started and failed and were consequently closed like Namasagali University, Lugazi University, and Fairland University. In May 2017 Lijif International American College of Health Services and Stafford University were warned and faced possible closure too.

With over 55 universities in Uganda, 9 of which are public, Uganda is one of the countries in Africa that encourage private participation in the higher education sector. Even when some of the private universities like Uganda Christian University and Uganda Martyrs University at times ranked in the top 100 universities in Africa, a closer look at what is happening in those institutions will show that all is not well especially regarding funding.

I would like to opine that as much as the government is encouraging private participation in higher education, it should be more active to prevent these institutions from failure. The government as the regulator must have plans for both preventing failure and management of the effects of failure. If that is not done, disaster is looming.

Most private universities have expired provisional licenses and have been operating without the statutory charter. Only 18 private universities are chartered out of the 45.

NCHE recently invited the managers of more than 40 private universities to agree on a roadmap for attaining the charter within the given 12 months, or they close. According to the Universities and other Tertiary Institutions Act, a charter is “granted by the President as evidence that the university meets the requirements and standards of academic excellence set by the NCHE.”

Of the country’s 45 private universities, eight were established between 1988 and 2001, before the “Universities and Other Tertiary Institutions Act 2001” was passed by the Uganda parliament. These universities began operating without government authorization in terms of going through a legal framework of regulations and meeting the requirements that are necessary for operation as a university. Most of the private universities are faith-based though of recent the number of universities registered founded by individuals is going up.

Most private universities are crowded in Kampala. Unlike the location of public universities that consider regional balancing, the establishment of private universities is dictated by other considerations especially the principle of demand and supply. In the case of western Uganda that I am familiar with, affordability is a big factor in choosing where to enroll.

But now most of the universities in western Uganda are struggling because of low numbers. The many universities in western Uganda exacerbated by NCHE allowing other established universities to establish colleges and study centres in the region is the major explanation for low students enrolment in a good number of them.

The establishment of private universities has helped increase access to university education though we still have more parents preferring to take their children to public universities partly because of prestige but also the cost is much lower as compared to private universities. With the rate at which the government is investing in higher education especially increasing pay for academic staff and infrastructure development, we are likely to see more growth in public universities than private universities. It seems even parents and students are not even deterred by strikes of staff and riots by students at times in public universities.

How can we prevent universities from failing? The National Council for Higher Education could declare a minimum of 4-year moratorium on the establishment of private universities and opening autonomous colleges and study centers in different parts of the country. This can be done especially in regions where the supply of universities exceeds demand.

There is also a need to seriously consider the absorptive capacity for assessing applications for private universities. If universities are unable to meet their annual admission quota, there would be no justification for licensing private universities or allowing public universities to establish colleges and study centres there. One other thing to consider seriously as an evaluation criterion of licensing private universities is the succession plan for the leadership and management of universities established by individual founders. This may contribute greatly to the prevention of failed universities.

When prevention fails, then the government has to manage the consequences of failure. The current practice is to distribute the students in failed universities among other functioning universities but I recommend another option. The failed university may be demoted into a study centre of an existing private or public university backed up by a clear memorandum of understanding (MOU) that would be legally binding.

The writer is an Associate Professor Department of Governance & Public Administration, Kabale University, visiting researcher, University of Oxford UK & Former Vice-Chancellor Ankole Western University.

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