The intervention of Parliament of Uganda in understanding the issues surrounding the impasse at Makerere University recently, and subsequent commencement of end of Semester 1 examinations, brought relative peace at the Ivory Tower.
This was after a fortnight of anarchy between October 22 and November 4, where violence was meted on students characterised by unlawful arrests and detention, vandalisation of students' and university property by security agencies in a bid to deter students from demonstrating against the unpopular 15 per cent tuition and functional fees increment.
The fees hike, currently in its second year of implementation, was passed in June last year and requires every new student enrolling for studies at Makerere to pay a 15 per cent higher fees than the previous year. The architects of this policy hoped that it would go on for the next five years.
According to the Uganda Advanced Certificate of Education (UACE) results for 2018, a total of 63,123 candidates, representing 64.7 per cent, qualified for university entry.
Of these, only about 2,000 lucky ones attained loans from the Higher Education Student Financing Board (HESFB). This means the rest were left to struggle on their own to attain university education.
Giving a child the best in life is every parent's dream but achieving this comes with quality education. It is a public secret that education is critical for building human empowerment as an end and as a means to deliver economic progress. Unfortunately, because of the numerous financial obligations, some parents cannot sustain timely fees payments and struggle to raise tuition fees every semester.
As guild president, I happened to have attended a university's self-assessment meeting organised by the institutions' directorate of Quality Assurance in May, where glaring statistics were presented indicating that between 1,000 and 1,500 students on average drop out from Makerere University annually. The main reason the university gives is that of inability to complete payment of tuition. It is also true that male students drop out more than female students. More than 83 per cent of the university student population have to hustle to make ends meet.
Tuition fees aside, parents, guardians and sponsors are also expected to provide support for their children at university in terms of accommodation, meals and transport. On average, a habitable hostel within the proximity of Makerere University goes for between Shs1m and Shs1.8m per semester. Remember, a student has also to eat. The university scrapped catering services and outsourced them. This, coupled with dismantling of food kiosks at the university, pose a huge challenge to students in finding not only affordable but also decent meals at the university.
The university management has been pedaling lies that the fees increment was born out of students' consultation, which we totally disagree with as students. The facts on ground show that in July, 2018, seven students who we suspect were heavily facilitated by the university management, wrote a report purporting to be binding the student guild leadership proposing a 15 per cent increment across all programmes effective Academic Year 2018/2019.
As students, we feel this was not only done in bad faith but also unfair. It was selfishly done and was not binding of the students' population in general as they were not consulted. If it is not scrapped immediately, the policy has far- reaching implications, including denying sons and daughters of this nation a chance and right to affordable education.
In the ongoing, examinations for instance, I have received more than 500 cases of students who have expressed their inability to meet their financial obligations to the university. Incidentally, majority of these are first and second year students, who are victims of this unfortunate increment.
We also feel the fees increments are discriminatory and target to eliminate the peasant populations.
Worse still, being the oldest university in the country, other public universities tend to pick, copy and paste what has been successfully implemented at Makerere. We, therefore, are risking the larger population with such reforms if not carefully thought through.
I think there is a need for all of us to come together and discuss this tuition increment policy with all honesty and to establish whether it is a move in the right direction. Students request an earnest discussion and engagement with government and all the relevant stakeholders on these increments.
The writer is the 85th guild president of Makerere University