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Should going back to the past be the future for Makerere University?

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 Makerere University Mobile- screenshot Let me be blunt and say right off the bat that the suggestion re “Turn Makerere into science courses University” is a pretty questionable idea that, like many “initiatives” these days, is probably being promoted by political sycophants and opportunists.


Someone much wiser than me once remarked: “Civilization is in a race between education and catastrophe. Let us learn the truth and spread it as far and wide as our circumstances allow. For the truth is the greatest weapon we have.” ―  H.G. Wells


What is being floated is not new. It is the suggestion that the main sector of higher education that is relevant and should be supported by the public sector is Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics (STEM) studies, capped with some management studies (to wit, MBA degrees). We are supposed to forget about foundational liberal arts and basic science degrees. Never mind that a Harvard or Penn or Chicago MBA mostly imbues partakers with networking skills, and has relatively little, if anything, to do with the enhancement of foundational cognitive development. Ironically, this type of thinking has been used to fan the anti-intellectual populism of Donald Trump, Farage and UKIP and BREXIT, and other like movements in Europe, Turkey, India, Philippines and other places.


I support teaching and research in the liberal arts and science as the basic foundation of an educated, egalitarian, democratic, free and non-elitist society. We need an education system that can lift the level of public literacy, with an emphasis on foundational cognitive development in fields of knowledge. Learning should not be so pre-occupied with generic programmes and social networks-building that people become numb to facing facts and the truth, hide behind clichés, shun knowledge of things that challenge their sensibilities or even capacities, and lose track of public virtue, public interest, social justice and social improvement. If a major centre of learning like Makerere does not include liberal arts and science education, the institution is diminished in stature, and the country is deprived of basic intellectual capacity building that is at the core of nation building.


Liberal arts and science is the best antidote to Nazism, Stalinism, Musevenism, Trumpism, Quaddafism, and all those self-promoting and opportunistic pseudo-ideologies that have done so much damage to the world. For Africans (especially Ugandans) who think that STEM (imported root-stock-and-barrel from the West) is the simple answer to their woes, I have this message: foundational liberal arts and science education has the potential to be the catalyst that helps us to come to terms with the most fundamental strategic challenge of our time. That challenge is to reconcile our African ways of living, and doing things with the European, Chinese, Arabic and other ways. The biggest tragi-drama of Africa since “Independence” has arguably been the Africans (especially our leaders’) pained struggle to preserve and share our intrinsic knowledge, socio-economic, politico-governance and technologies with others while also adopting and adapting other’s ways.


When I was a student in the US, in the 1970s and 1980s, I met many generously funded students from Libya. They only studied physical and biological sciences and technology subjects. I once asked one of the Libyan students in the College of Agriculture why there were no Libyan students at all in the liberal arts courses. He had become what I would call a friend, and he went to a leadership role in the Libyan Ministry of Agriculture. The then student and future Minister told me that the Libyan Government (meaning Muammar Qaddafi) had decided that there was no need for Libyans to study liberal arts courses. He went on to explain the Government and the Muammar knew all the sociology, political science, anthropology, history, and other like subjects and issues, and that the general population did not have to be involved in those subjects! Hence, all that Libyan students had to do was to study science, engineering, agriculture, architecture, veterinary medicine, and other like pursuits. I told my friend that Libya would live to regret that policy. Many years later, after Qaddafi was pursued out of office and murdered with Western connivance, I was not surprised that many scientist and engineers in the country had no idea whatsoever how to organise any semblance of a new governance and administrative structure. Apparently, may be seeing the writing on the wall, Qaddafi had arranged for at least one of his sons to study economics at the London School of Economics; but that son was swept-up in the changes and ended up in jail. Whenever I have read Museveni’s ridiculing attacks on liberal arts and science education, I have wondered whether he also has the Qaddafi streak of believing that he has a certain monopoly on knowledge and truth that other Ugandans cannot be trusted to possess.


However, let that digression be left to another day. Ultimately, one cannot be dogmatic. Obviously, there needs to be room for both liberal arts and science studies and STEM-styled studies. How this is organised in central to the integrity of a country’s education system. A core argument for turning Makerere into a STEM-style university seems to be that, with the proliferation of publicly funded institutions of higher learning, there is duplication of course and programmes, and hence, a need for to rationalise institutions and allot specialised disciplines to various institutions. It goes without saying that every education system needs its equivalents of Oxford, Cambridge, Sorbonne, Paris, Harvard, Yale, Berkeley, Delhi, Bombay, Stellenbosch, Makerere and other centres of learning that excel in all areas of education, whether liberal arts and sciences or technology and management. Except in the US, most such comprehensive liberal arts and research universities are publicly sponsored. Such institutions have produced national political leaders, captains of industry, discoverers and inventors and Nobel laureates at more prolific rates than specialised universities. Eventually, even institutions like the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), the Land Grant Universities of Agriculture and Technology in the US, and the network of twenty-three IITs (Indian Institute of Technology) re-assessed their original technical-subjects-only mandates, and have all built strong foundational liberal arts and basic sciences programmes. They all now offer comprehensive programmes that cater to the liberal arts, basic science and technological education and research.


It is beyond comprehension why anyone would start to wind the clock back on Makerere University and transport it back to 1922 when it opened as a technical college. What Makerere needs is to be taken further into the future and developed as comprehensive world-class education and research institution.


The question of duplication of public education programmes in Uganda’s public universities really centres on the reason why and the ways in which these institutions were established in the first place. Many public universities were set up for purely political reasons. Some, like Kabale University, were set up by private parties and then passed on to the Government after they floundered. The rationalisation, which could include the closure of some of these mushroom institution, does not have be centred on the gutting of the only, so far, near-world class comprehensive education and research university in the country.


Another boogeyman of a reason that is floated for reducing the funding of liberal arts and basic sciences education is that it is difficult for liberal arts and science graduates to find employment. There is nothing further from the truth on this one. Studies in North America and UK have revealed that unemployment is lower among liberal arts and science graduates than among those with more technologically oriented degrees. Moreover, most graduates, all over the world, are fond to be working at jobs that are far from those for which they were trained. Many positions are generic, and many so-called specialist positions are often occupied by non-specialist graduates.


When asked to rate the main causes of graduate unemployment, only 34% of students from 123 institutions in the UK blamed the university courses that they had taken. Instead, 68% of the respondents pointed at poor teaching as the major cause of unemployment woes. If poor teaching is the main cause of graduate unemployment in the UK, think how much more this is a problem in Uganda. Those who recommend the gutting of Makerere and its reversion to a technical institution need to seriously reflect on the teaching conditions and standards, including underpaid and unmotivated staff, as the, arguably, most significant issue that is facing higher education in Uganda today. 

Let us be true to the Makerere Motto: WE BUILD FOR THE FUTURE.

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