COVID-19: Private varsities ask for help

By Conan Businge

Kateregga, the vice-chancellor and proprietor of Kampala University, said the vice-chancellors also proposed that the Government pays salaries of their staff for one semester.

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Hit by the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, private universities have appealed for a bail-out from the Government to enable them stay afloat.
They have asked for tax holidays and a rescue package to enable them pay staff salaries.
Twenty vice-chancellors of private universities under their umbrella body, Vice-Chancellors' Forum, met the First Lady and education minister, Mrs. Janet Museveni, at State House Entebbe on Wednesday and said some of their institutions may not remain operational if not assisted.
The vice-chancellors asked the Government for tax exemptions, personal protection equipment for staff and lecturers, support in paying their workers as well as the revision of the students' loan scheme and the government scholarships policy.
All education institutions were closed by the Government on March 20 in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. Although plans to have them re-opened are being mooted, a number of them are struggling financially.
The State House meeting was also attended by higher education state minister Dr John Muyingo and planning state minister David Bahati. Some of the vice-chancellors were not invited for purposes of social distancing during the meeting.
Dr John Senyonyi, the chairperson of the forum, said many private universities had asked for a tax holiday, which was rejected.
"Even in cases where the taxes were deferred, we will have to pay this money. We felt that there was need to have taxes waived, but it was rejected," Ssenyonyi said.
He said the universities proposed that the period of tax deferment be extended, which the ministers said, would be discussed at Cabinet level.
Ssenyonyi added: "We also requested that the 4,000 scholarships should be rolled into the Student Loan Scheme so that there is a single spine higher education financing model." This is also one of the issues raised in the White Paper, which was presented to Government by its experts a few months ago.
Ssenyonyi also said they asked the ministers, to, "either make the Student Loan Scheme equitably accessible in all universities licensed by the Uganda National Council for Higher Education or specifically private chartered not-for-profit universities".
He said if the loans scheme is left to only private universities, students will easily pay tuition. Prof. Badru Kateregga, the former chairperson of the forum, who also attended the meeting, said the matter was contentious.
"But the First Lady said they will table the matter before Cabinet for discussion," he said.
Kateregga, the vice-chancellor and proprietor of Kampala University, said the vice-chancellors also proposed that the Government pays salaries of their staff for one semester.
"Kampala University has a wage bill of sh1b per semester. Some other private universities' wage bills range from sh1b to sh3b per semester. If they help us for a semester, universities will normalise their operations," Kateregga said.
However, he said the matter was rejected by the Government, since many other businesses are struggling and cannot all be rescued financially.
Kateregga said the First Lady, at this point, proposed that universities start endowment funds to supplement their tuition collections. The vice-chancellors also want all universities (public and private) to be chartered, as it is done in the neighbouring countries.
"The present chartering system has double standards because more rigour is placed on private universities," Ssenyonyi said.
The matter, he said, was also shelved for debate by Cabinet, since it is a policy matter.
Ssenyonyi also said they asked for the removal of the cap on student loans.
"That cap is understandably placed by the National Budget figure given for loans. But it is unrealistic to expect science programmes such as medicine, dentistry and architecture to cost the same or be within the same range as the humanities. It implicitly creates favouritism for public universities with falsely depressed fees levels," he said.
Victoria University vice-chancellor Dr Krishna Sharma, who also attended the meeting, said they asked the Government to help university students access zero-rated internet bandwidth.
Sharma said some universities had started this process with the mobile network operators through the Research Education Network Uganda (RENU), their umbrella body.
"He said Internet bandwidth is essential for modern higher education to thrive. Kateregga also said private universities asked to equally be considered in the Government's quest to promote research in the country. "Our students are meant for the nation. Why should research funds be availed to only students in public universities?" he asked.
Government experts, in the White Paper have proposed a research fund; and want it to be accessed by all universities.
The experts also proposed that at least sh1 trillion or 1% of the country's GDP be allocated for research.
He said in response, the ministers said this matter would be discussed by the Government.
Although most of the private universities have not yet had their courses accredited to be taught online, the vice-chancellors also requested to be allowed to start off with lecturing, as the legal process of accreditation is finalised.  
Ssenyonyi said the ministers alerted universities that practical lectures and examinations would have to be put on hold, and they have to ensure that their courses are accredited by the National Council for Higher Education.