Is Makerere Exchanging Its Academic Freedom for Museveni Money? [opinion]

In the wake of President Yoweri Museveni’s ill-aised denigration of humanities and social sciences as ‘useless’, it appears that authorities at Makerere University have hit the panic button.

The nation’s premier university intends to act on the president’s directive, at least going by the comments of University Council Chairman Charles Wana-Etyem. Council, it ought to be remembered, is the university’s topmost decision-making body.

As quoted in the Daily Monitor last Friday, Dr Wana-Etyem pledged to act on Museveni’s aice and “drop courses that are not cost-effective”. This is rather bewildering.

How did the president arrive at the conclusion that Makerere ran courses that were not cost-effective? And why would Makerere University wait to learn from the president that it has ‘non-cost-effective’ courses? Is it because the president is an education consultant or a retired university professor with a rich scholarly CV?

Well, it is about money. He has the money and the lecturers desperately need decent remuneration. Apparently, the president is willing to give Makerere lecturers and professors a pay rise, but on condition that they change what they teach. Does Makerere need to rethink, if not change, some of its programmes? No doubt. Any serious research university of the stature of Makerere must continuously review and rationalise its programmes and courses.

But is the president best-placed to know what exactly needs to change at Makerere? Most unlikely. To use the quest for better remuneration to arm-twist the university and compromise academic freedom is a trifle dubious. We may recall that it was the quest for increased earnings and the simplicity of ‘marketable courses’ that drove proliferation of courses and duplication of programmes at Makerere.

It appears that the same logic is to be replayed, only that this time it is at the behest of the president. The full import of Makerere acquiescing to the president’s directive may not be apparent to many of us. But at this rate, one can only imagine that Makerere will soon get directives from the president on what reading materials should be assigned to which courses, the questions to be asked in final exams and the research topics to be pursued by both students and faculty.

Better still, the president might order for compilation of a national university curriculum!

This may sound facetious, but it is not. General Museveni is a control freak. He is overly confident that he has a first-rate grasp of all of Uganda’s problems thus given chance, he would want to be determining all the finer details of what is done or not done at every institution, both public and private.

So, his directive to Makerere is no surprise. What is disconcerting is that the University Council chairman believes the university should be running on the directives of the president. If there is any group in society that must stand up against the excesses of an authoritarian ruler, it is the academic staff of a university, especially the nation’s topmost research university.

Dr Wana-Etyem and the leadership of Makerere University Academic Staff Association should have the courage to, pointedly, tell General Museveni that academic freedom cannot be traded for a better salary from government. World over, a university is best defined by upholding academic freedom – the uncensored pursuit of knowledge, without the undue interference and direction of any external authority.

Chairman Wana-Etyem knows all too well that even he, as council chairman, has no business directing university units on what they should or should not teach. The essence of academic freedom is that members of the university’s lowest unit, the department or field of study, hold the latitude to determine what to teach and what to research.

A department determines its teaching-focus and research agenda based not on what a president thinks is ‘useful’ or ‘useless’ but, rather, on the competences of its teaching staff and the interests of its research team. To be sure, academic freedom does not mean university staffs do as they please and act as they wish, without any countervailing measures.

Indeed, more than any other occupation, it is in the academia where activities and programmes are subjected to rigorous rationalisation and serious prioritising. Undoubtedly, many academic disciplines and departments can be rather rigid, conservative and more hostile to new ideas than they are amenable to change. But a viable and reasonable reform process must be initiated and executed from within the university precincts and not by politicians.

The most important unit that defines a university, the academic department, operates through a simple but viable layer of authority and peer-review system. Different committees oversee department activities, ranging from admissions and recruitments to teaching priorities and research themes.

When internal departmental governance systems and quality assurance mechanisms fail or are compromised, for one reason or the other, the next level is the school or faculty or college. In the event that all internal university systems and mechanisms are unsatisfactory, an external intervention can be sought, but from within the world of academia, not State House.

The author is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Northwestern University, EvanstonChicago-USA.

Source : The Observer

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