#16 food & farming
Oliver Schmidt

Favouring Bricks Over Brains?

Uganda’s Mountains of the Moon University (MMU) was founded in December 2009. MMU was created by community leaders in Western Uganda as a non-profit university. Running a university in sub-Saharan Africa can be quite a ‘juggling act’, according to MMU’s Dean of the School of Business and Management, Oliver Schmidt.

Many development indicators in sub-Saharan Africa have shown positive development over the past 15 years. Economies are growing more steadily and often faster. Primary and secondary education has been expanded. African businesses have taken the lead in innovation and the application of mobile phone-based technologies.

Sustaining these positive trends by broadening the knowledge and skill base of the workforce is one of the huge challenges of the 21st century. Africa needs universities to train a more productive workforce, and to build a research ecosystem that will support African businesses in competing in the technology frontier. If this task is not discharged successfully, Africa will be home to the world's largest aggregation of under-employed youth who see their ambitions for life frustrated.

The majority of universities in sub-Saharan Africa were founded in the second half of the 20th century, and most have yet to produce a head of state or a Nobel laureate. In Uganda today, the National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) regulates universities, overseeing 6 public and 42 private universities. Like MMU, most of them were founded in the past 15 years; eight private and one public university opened their doors after 2010.

Some Ugandan universities have been criticised for being preoccupied with 'bricks rather than brains'.

R. enrolled in the very first Bachelor's in Banking and Development Finance Programme. At the time, there were no hostels or other rooms for students near the MMU campus, and the daily 8km journey from Fort Portal to the campus was a strain: The road was engulfed in dust during dry season and turned to slippery mud during the rainy season. R. earned computer skills at MMU. Through a joint savings initiative with his classmates, he was able to buy his first second-hand laptop during his last year of study.

After graduating top of his class, he joined MMU as a teaching assistant. In the same year, MMU purchased a staff van for the daily journey to campus. Today, R. leads a project funded by the German development organisation, GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH), to promote financial literacy among staff and students. He trains students to form savings groups, keep records, and open group accounts at a local bank.

Plato and Aristotle in Ancient Greece and Rabindranath Tagore in early 20th century Bengal used to teach in open spaces. This is not a viable option for any university in Africa today, given that reliable regular lectures need to be sheltered from unpredictable weather conditions, and university instruction today requires the use of electronic information and communication technologies (ICT).

For young educational institutions – be they universities or any other type of school – the need for indoor spaces poses great challenges. Building structures binds capital that is then not available for strengthening the capacity of instructors, making more teaching materials available, and offering variety. Indeed, some Ugandan universities have been criticised for being preoccupied with 'bricks rather than brains'. However, it is not an easy balance to achieve, particularly for a young institution. Construction is important, since Ugandan parents and potential students are influenced in their choice of study program by a university's physical appearance. Additionally, the NCHE enforces an elaborate set of standards for infrastructure - classrooms, sports facilities, student hostels etc.

Physical infrastructure also binds senior management capacity: University leadership regularly spends a lot of time 'hunting' potential sponsors for physical infrastructure. Few development agencies offer funding for this purpose. Hence, Ugandan universities sometimes 'juggle' with project budgets to support a bit of infrastructure development, which at times affects project activities. Projects also require working space, of course. More critically, young Ugandan universities often cut back on teaching and programs because construction absorbs their cash flows. This is particularly negative when students pay 'functional fees', e. g. for their identity cards, for an internship or research supervision, or for examinations, and then receive sub-standard services.

ICT skills are not only critical if university graduates are to be relevant in the labour market; they are also the gateway to knowledge and experience.

M. had dreamt of a career as computer programmer. But study programmes in this field are expensive in Uganda, and she would have had to move from Fort Portal to Kampala, an additional expense. So she enrolled in the Bachelor's in Banking and Development Finance Programme. She was eager to learn how to use various computer programs, and invested her savings in her own laptop early on. She was one of the few students who used SPSS to analyse her bachelor's research data. Building on her research topic 'savings behaviour in rural communities', she worked as a field officer for an NGO project that linked rural farmers' groups to markets. Afterwards, she joined the financial office of a private company, where she applies computerised accounting processes.

ICT skills are not only critical for university graduates if they are to be relevant in the labour market; they are also the gateway to knowledge and experience around the world and even over time. Today, practically any research venture must start with the internet, and increasingly findings can also be shared through the internet, whether in open-access-journals or on social networks like ResearchGate.net.

A range of non-governmental organizations have been bringing second-hand computers to Africa to close the digital divide. Some also took advantage of this objective as an opportunity to 'dump' substandard computers in Africa though, so in 2014, the government of Uganda stopped the import of second-hand computers.

Meanwhile, a quiet 'laptop' revolution is underway. Plummeting prices have led to laptops replacing desktop computers. In an environment where the electricity supply is unreliable, laptops can be easily moved to a location powered by a generator or solar panel. The downside is that laptop thefts have surged and MMU staff members who live in places with no particular security have been the target of burglaries.

Universities all around the world are facing the challenge of increasing the number of computer labs as well as internet-access points, and offering online-information and interactive platforms through websites and intranets. In Africa, all this has to be accomplished while offering less attractive work places and remuneration packages than the private sector.

Many young universities in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa start as teaching institutions.

M. enrolled in the 2-year Diploma in Education Programme (DED) as one of the first MMU students. Having successfully completed it, he came back as an in-service student (i. e. working as a teacher, studying during the school holidays) in the 3-year Bachelor's in Education Programme (BED). Based on his bachelor's degree, he was promoted to head teacher. He participated in a short course organised by MMU's School of Education to equip head teachers with management skills. He is now thinking about joining MMU's new Master's in Educational Leadership and Policy Programme.

Many young universities in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa start as teaching institutions, drawing on secondary teachers to deliver their curricula. Students are the major, and in most cases practically the only, source of regular income. University education is usually private, i. e. students pay tuition to attend. Uganda, for example, offers a very small number of government scholarships – though there has been a recent initiative for expansion through a student loan scheme. At the same time, universal primary and secondary education has swelled the numbers of A-level holders who would like to pursue a bachelor's.

Quality teaching and learning is costly. It means smaller classes, more training so lecturers can master a variety of delivery methods, hiring tutorial assistants, and more supervision of the assessment process. In a market where many young universities are competing for low-income students, it is difficult to ensure quality teaching and learning, in part because the merits of quality become visible later on, e. g. when graduates successfully compete for jobs or perform well as entrepreneurs. How can young universities bridge the time gap between the higher costs of their study courses today and the resulting increased reputation later?

It is a dilemma that results in wealth-based segmentation to a great extent. Wealth and education are regularly correlated, and hence wealthy, well-educated parents send their students to more expensive, high-quality universities. In Kampala, for example, one young university offers each student a laptop. The fees for just one semester at that university could fund a whole bachelor's program at MMU.

Research differentiates universities from schools. Research is the core ingredient of innovation.

H. enrolled for the Bachelor's in Social and Community Development Programme (BSCD) at MMU. She worked on her bachelor's research report on 'sexual intercourse and adolescence'. Later she graduated top of her class and joined MMU as a teaching assistant. MMU waived 60% of the Master's in Public Administration and Management Programme (MPA) tuition for her. While studying for her master's and engaging in research again, H. realised how many gaps there had been in instruction on undergraduate research when she was an undergraduate. She is now part of the team that works to orient undergraduate research much more towards applicable skills instead of theoretical knowledge only.

Research differentiates universities from schools. Research is the core ingredient of innovation. African businesses have been doing poorly on most innovation indicators, such as patents, or technology-driven entrepreneurship. Recently this has begun to change, and examples include East Africa's mobile-phone-based payment systems and Nigeria's innovative film industry.

However, few African universities have profiled themselves as research centres. With the exception of four South African universities, no African university numbers among the top 400 universities in the world.

Building research capacity takes a long time. It is hard to see how it can emerge at organizations that exist because of their focus on teaching, and that have hence geared their management systems around teaching. In Europe and North America, an ecosystem of public and private research funding incentivised universities to build management systems for research. This is largely absent in many African countries including Uganda. With the support of Belgian and German development partners, MMU has attempted to build the capacity of young researchers, to engage them in research projects and in academic publication. It is a long journey, both for the individuals who may eventually be awarded a PhD - Uganda currently has fewer than 1,000 PhD holders - and for the universities who need to innovate research management systems that will attract private funders willing to work with them.

Photo: “Back from Africa” by Brian Wolfe
2011 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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