Bob Atwine, 21, says he is pleased he went to a private university instead of to Makerere University, Uganda's renowned, government-owned institution of higher education.
Originally a technical school founded in 1922 in Kampala, Uganda's capital, Makerere became one of the most prestigious academic centres in Africa. But over-crowding, poorly paid professors, frequent strikes and crumbling infrastructure have tarnished its once sterling reputation. Students like Mr Atwine are studying elsewhere.
“Makerere has deteriorated in recent years,” Mr Atwine says. He is studying information technology and is in his third and final year at Uganda Martyrs, a private university with 2,000 students, which has its main campus near the southern Ugandan town of Masaka.
“At my university, lecturers don't need to strike over poor payment,” Mr Atwine said. “Students don't need to strike over crowded classrooms. Our campus is also better organised.”
Mr Atwine is one of an estimated 40,000 students in Uganda who attend a private university, according to the College of Education and External Studies at Makerere, which researches the country's education system. (Uganda's education and sports ministry says it does not have an overall figure for the student population at private universities.)
Private universities proliferated after 1986 when President Yoweri Museveni came to power and set Uganda's economy on a liberal path, offering plenty of space for commercial enterprise. Uganda's first private university was born in 1988 and now there are 30, some affiliated with universities in Europe or Asia.
Though privatisation of tertiary education has allowed more Ugandans to obtain a degree, students and academic staff say it has also had negative effects, most notably at the five government-owned universities, of which Makerere is by far the biggest and best-known. Makerere counts among its alumni acclaimed researchers and writers as well as prominent African post-independence presidents such as Tanzania's Julius Nyerere and Benjamin Mkapa, Uganda's Milton Obote and Kenya's Mwai Kibaki.
“In Uganda, it's not a matter of public and private universities,” explains a senior lecturer at Makerere's College of Education and External Studies, who asked to remain anonymous. “The public universities are by now also largely privatised. Government's underfunding has forced Makerere down a commercial path which has undermined the university's quality.”
Last year a magazine published by Makerere to commemorate its 90th birthday admitted that the university is suffering “a decline in quality”, as well as “internal cliques and wrangles” and “inadequate funding exacerbated by financial mismanagement”.
Makerere frequently makes newspaper headlines with students who protest against overcrowding, lack of study materials and understaffed colleges. In the past few years, academic and non-academic personnel have repeatedly gone on strike demanding pay hikes, without success.
According to Professor Mahmood Mamdani, director of Makerere's Institute of Social Research, the seeds of Makerere's troubles were sown in the early 1990s when the Ugandan government, with “the uncritical enthusiasm of a convert”, embraced the World Bank's “then-held conviction” that higher education was “more of a private than a public good”.
In Mr Mamdani's “Scholars in the Marketplace”, published in 2007, he argues that government's decision to make public universities partly responsible for their own funding led to a “commercial” way of thinking that paved the way for fee-paying private students alongside students on government bursaries. More and more average academic students made their way into Makerere.
This led to overcrowding as government funding for classrooms, student halls and other facilities did not keep up with the ballooning student population.
“The infrastructure that was meant for 6,000 students in 1980 is now serving about 40,000 students,” about as many as the total number of students at all 30 private universities, said Mondo Kagonyera, chancellor of Makerere University, last year.
Of Makerere's 40,000 students, 34,000 are private, according to Makerere's figures. The total revenue for 2012 - 13 stands at 191 billion Ugandan shillings ($73m), of which 103 billion ($39m), or 54%, comes from non-tax revenue, mainly tuition fees.
“Makerere is still public in name,” comments an associate professor at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, who also does not want to be named. “In reality, it's largely private.”
The government's underfunding of Makerere is part of a broader neglect of public services in Uganda, the associate professor says. He regrets that President Museveni regularly states that students should focus on “productive” courses that will get them jobs instead of seeking degrees in “unproductive” fields like the humanities.eatty
Professor Mamdani has previously stated that he wants Makerere to return to its former role as an academic, research-led institute. But the associate professor says he understands both viewpoints: “Uganda's fast-growing population needs jobs, that's true. It's just that a government also has a responsibility to maintain research.”
Both the senior lecturer and the associate professor say they combine their jobs at Makerere with work outside of the university to top-up their meagre income.
The senior lecturer says he earns 1.8m Uganda shillings ($694) a month, but would earn more than 3m ($1,156) at a private university, while the associate professor says he earns 2.3m shillings ($888) a month. “Sometimes I take up consultancy jobs,” the associate professor says. “I have to live.”
Makerere has proposed raising its fees so that it can pay its staff more and improve student facilities, but Uganda's education and sports ministry says this income-generating idea would not be “strategic” or democratic. “Students with less money would be knocked off,” says Patrick Muinda, the ministry's public relations officer.
Asked if the government should supply the extra funds, Mr Muinda says the government cannot pay for everything. “We have a tight resource envelope, we have to prioritise,” he says. Still, without government, Makerere “would not be up and running”, he adds. “Government keeps Makerere standing.”
Both lecturers agree that despite Makerere's many shortcomings, the public institution is still a very respected academic establishment. They will not give up their positions to take up full-time jobs at a private university.
“Makerere remains a good place to do research and to teach,” the associate professor says. “Makerere today is better resourced with books and internet. Lecturers publish more than they used to. Makerere now also enables more Ugandans to follow higher education. In a way, the university has been democratised.”
“Makerere still has a very good reputation,” the senior lecturer adds. “It's the prize university. And as a lecturer, you have job security. We complain internally but in the end, we're happy with the enslavement.”
Makerere may have its problems, but so do private universities. Whereas Makerere only hires professors who have earned PhDs, private universities accept master's degree holders, casting doubt in some students' minds over the capability of these lecturers.
Some private universities have run into trouble over their academic standards. In February 2013 Uganda's National Council for Higher Education rejected 66 PhDs that had been awarded by Kampala International University, citing weaknesses in supervision and examination.
“A problem with private universities is also that you have to accept it if they raise their fees midway through your studies. You can't just abandon them in your final year,” says Sharif Mabingo, 22, who studies law at Uganda Christian University, which is owned by the Anglican Church and is located in Mukono, 20km east of Kampala.
In his first year Mr Mabingo says that he paid 1.7m Ugandan shillings ($656) per semester. In his current and third year, he has to pay 2.3m ($888) per semester. “That is a lot of money, which is not entirely justified by what you get for it,” he says. “The university is a money-making business.”
At Makerere, Mr Mabingo says he would have paid 1.6m shillings ($617) per semester throughout his studies. Still, like Mr Atwine, Mr Mabingo does not regret going to a private university. Despite the high fees, he appreciates the “good lecturers and resources and the absence of strikes”, he says.