Dr Herbert Mukasa is the principal of YMCA Comprehensive Institute, a degree-awarding institution. Mukasa recently graduated with a PhD in Commerce (Business Management) from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in South Africa.
He told Yudaya Nangonzi how he wants to use this expertise to turn the institution into a fully-fledged university within four years.
Twelve years ago when Mukasa was appointed YMCA branch director at Wandegeya, he was the overall administrator of activities but the place was just a vocational institution that was limited to awarding only certificates.
He had just completed his bachelor's degree in Education at Makerere University and was eager to gain a foothold in the education sector. Fast forward to today, Mukasa has risen through the ranks to become the YMCA principal.
In that period, the institution has also scaled heights in academics and infrastructure; in 2012, the National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) elevated YMCA's status to a tertiary institute before attaining the level of degree-awarding institution last year.
In 2014, YMCA opened a 40-acre campus in Buwambo, Wakiso district. This is part of a long-term goal of becoming a university by 2020. "The initial aim was to decongest YMCA but we now plan to turn Buwambo into the main campus due to its big expanse," said 46-year-old Mukasa.
To prove the determination, YMCA started holding its graduation ceremonies at Buwambo in 2014. According to Dr Joseph Robert Jjumba, the YMCA national director, Buwambo is still a work in progress. "It is the focal point of our expansion drive and at the moment and we are undertaking infrastructural developments on the land," he says.
Jjumba adds that of YMCA's Shs 11bn operational budget last year, Shs 5bn was allocated to the uplifting of the Buwambo campus.
Like any other institution, YMCA faces a financial squeeze in its ultimate bid to gain a university status. "Our operations are greatly dependent on internally-generated support with no government help," says Mukasa.
Interestingly, one might be surprised that YMCA charges one of the lowest tuition fees despite her degree-awarding status. The highest figure for degree courses is Shs 700,000 per semester while that for diploma courses is Shs 350,000 and certificates Shs 330,000.
In addition, whereas YMCA's main campus at Wandegeya traffic lights is just a walkable distance from the city centre, one would expect the cost of living to be at a premium. But it is far from it. Students pay just Shs 480,000 for the hostels per term, including meals.
"It is a situation [low fees] we have become accustomed to because the institution primarily aims at improving the quality of life of the people, particularly the youth and other vulnerable groups," he adds. "Besides, we also offer bursaries for academic excellence and sports brilliance but there are also several slots for those that cannot afford tuition."
In spite of the low charges, YMCA continues to expand at an alarming rate and the backbone to this, Mukasa says, is the good developmental policy of management.
YMCA is renowned for its skill-oriented courses and Mukasa is aiming to make the institution a role model in the country and beyond. "People are moving away from formal education to hands-on programmes," he says. "Upon completion of courses, our students always gain instant employment and some become job creators due to the practical skills they have attained."
Courses at YMCA include fashion and design, cosmetology, electrical installation, industrial art, catering, nursery teacher education and journalism, among others.
The institute currently has around 8,000 students at both campuses [combined] and each year, it enrolls about 2,000 students for various courses. "It is interesting to note that there are several non-Ugandans that have enrolled for these courses," Jjumba notes. "We have a number of Kenyans, Tanzanians and even South Sudanese these days."
When the institute introduced degree programmes last year, 300 students enrolled and the number is expected to more than double for the 2016 intake due in August. With that number of 8,000 students, YMCA already has a bigger number than some newly-established public and private universities.
With the goal to turn YMCA into a full-fledged university gathering pace, Mukasa and team are working around the clock to secure enough funding for expanding the infrastructure at Buwambo and also enhance the teaching staff. "We have already turned the corner from tertiary institution into a degree-awarding institution and have now put in place mechanisms to convince NCHE," Mukasa says.
The major focus is to train the teaching staff to meet required standards of university lecturers by 2020. "We are firmly on course because most of them [teaching staff] are currently pursuing their doctorates and master's programmes," he says.
Already, some members of the 100-strong teaching staff have met the PhD requirements. "At the moment, we have six lecturers pursuing PhDs while another 35 are doing their master's programmes," adds Jjumba. "All are sponsored by the institution."
There was a time when YMCA used to be an academic afterthought, a last chance saloon of sorts for students that fail to get the required marks for universities. Not anymore. And with this rapid progress, it could join the elite club of few Ugandan universities recognized elsewhere.