I have been quiet for a while, so it’s about time to resume my meandering in and around past memories. You will recall that we left UMU and moved to Bunga (a suburb of Kampala) and settled down in our new place. Both of us were starting new jobs; Herself was setting up the “International Health Sciences University”, and I started out at my new place of work for the coming four years: the National Council for Higher Education.
In 2002 an Act of Parliament had set up the Council, but as is so often the case, some serious time was spent between the new legislation being approved and its enactment. Finally in 2004 an Executive Director was appointed and a core staff chosen. To my mind this was a good selection of people with whom it was easy to work: the former Director of the National Library, the former Commissioner for Higher Education at the Ministry of Education, one former Finance Officer at the Ministry of Finance, three professional secretaries and some other staff to assist in other tasks such as book-keeping, store-keeping and driving – a total of fourteen people. These were the people I met in September 2006 in an annex of Kyambogo University in the outskirts of Kampala. It was a modest university staff house with outbuildings, and this would have to do for the time being as offices of the NCHE. I had secured some funding from a private organisation so that I could acquire the needed equipment to set up my office and start thinking about Quality Assurance. Obtaining government funding is not always an easy task! So my first idea was: where do I start, as no guidelines had been given to me except some kind of in-house handbook, where there was nothing about the task of the Deputy Executive Director (which I now was) nor of a Department of Quality Assurance. My thoughts went back to my time at Nkozi and the work we had done to ensure that we met the criteria to deliver quality education: quality staff, quality programmes, and quality facilities had been our guide. So why not replicate this at national level and devise a structure which would help achieve these aims in the various institutions at national level? Indeed, why not? But it was, in fact, easier said than done! The legislation had some articles dealing with the setting up of universities, at least public ones, but very little about private universities. So, with respect for private initiatives, we set out with my colleagues to visit the various institutions and find out how they were faring. There is no need to tell you that after each of our trips we had stories to tell about our findings, some hilarious, others horror stories, and some serious ones but needing a huge boost to achieve the aim of a respectable and respected institution! Even the old Makerere University needed a real shake-up to get to standards acceptable internationally. Eventually they would get there but it took them quite some time to reach a semblance of their past glory!
It became quickly obvious that we had to clamp down on some institutions and make them change course. The main problem appeared to be staffing, and we found that in some institutions, mainly private ones, non-qualified staff were teaching undergraduate courses, and in a few cases even undergraduates were teaching post-graduate students! It was easy for us to put down rules to be observed to have qualified staff but it was not that easy to have this implemented. The answer was simple: to inform the defaulters that their programmes should be accredited by the National Council and that without this, the qualifications students obtained would be invalid in Uganda. The Act on Higher Education stipulated that programmes had to be accredited by the National Council, so at least we had the backing of the law. At the beginning it caused quite a stir but the heads of the various institutions understood quickly that they had no choice if they wanted their institution to survive. With public institutions the problem was minimal and we managed to convince the managers of public universities that it was in their own interests to follow the given guidelines. In private institutions it was more difficult and we were often faced with stubborn refusals to abide by the guidelines. Painful steps had to be taken and over the course of my four years as Deputy Executive Director, we closed a few institutions to the horror of some and the delight of others. I recall one institution which had been closed. We had received information that they were continuing operating. So one of our assistants in quality assurance, was sent on a mission to make sure things were in good order. He had been advised to have a police escort with him as the head of the institution could at times have the most erratic of behaviours. He visited the place and met some staff and students who told him they had been informed by the head that they could continue operating. On asking where the head was, nobody could give him a satisfactory answer. Police were given instructions to ensure the institution remained closed and we learned some time later that the head of the institution had been hiding under a hedge during the visit and made sure not to be seen! How can one go to such lengths to avoid reprimand! We had a good laugh. But the fellow persisted and a series of court cases ensued.
One thing which I felt was needed was to create a good spirit among the staff, as we were only fourteen. So the idea of operating our own canteen came up. One person wanted a place were sandwiches and snacks would be served, but all the other staff insisted that something more substantial be served. So a vote was taken and the wishes of the staff prevailed. But, as I had been asked to make the project operational, we ensured that everyone could get what he or she wanted for the lunch break, including sandwiches on demand! To our surprise all staff joined for lunch except our “sandwich man” who never joined us for lunch. So much for the sandwiches! But we did enjoy the excellent “matooke”, (plantain), with groundnut sauce accompanied with greens and twice a week some small pieces of beef or chicken in a delicious sauce. We had found a young chef and we never complained about his work. These were excellent moments of togetherness enabling us to relax from the daily work and break barriers which might exist between staff at different levels.
Another initiative I brought up was a weekly staff meeting, first thing on Monday morning, to assess the past week and plan for the coming week. This proved excellent and each one felt free to express views and opinions and so a real team spirit grew among us. Things could also be proposed and some good ideas helped in improving the operations of the Council.
But then time flies when you are busy working for the quality of higher education. The Council Board itself sat four times a year and these were moments where we had, as staff of the Council, to explain our actions and plans. Usually things went smoothly but sometimes pressure was exerted on some by Council members to get their agenda through. We had the good fortune to have an excellent chairman and he managed to bring consensus among he Council members when he sensed possible dissent. It enabled us to perform our tasks well and over the years we were credited with praise for our work. In four years I had put up a strong Quality Assurance Department and it was time for me to move on and leave the task to the younger generation. At the end of my contract, in December 2010, I asked not to have it renewed and it was accepted. The time had come for me to answer a serious question: retire completely or keep busy with things I liked. Well the second option was my choice and Herself gave me the opportunity to give a hand in the finance department of the “International Health Sciences University” of which she was the founding Vice Chancellor. This task did not last very long as she resigned from her position of Vice Chancellor on grounds that I cannot divulge here. All credit to her for it! This brought us to have lengthy discussions at home on what next and a brand new idea came up, moving into the twenty-first century and bring higher education to a new level. This for the next blogs: the “Virtual University of Uganda”, with which I finally ended my professional working life in Uganda. Watch this space!