Enhancing Teaching and Learning at Makerere University
Makerere University in Uganda was established in 1922, as a technical college and later as a constituent college of the University of London. It is one of the oldest universities in east and central Africa, becoming an independent University by parliamentary legislation in 1970. Until 1988, Makerere University remained the only recognized degree granting institution in Uganda. Even though there are more than five other public universities and about 24 privately run universities in the country today, Makerere University remains the largest, most dynamic, recognized and leading academic institution in the country. While the university’s mission is to provide innovative teaching, learning, research and services responsive to national and global needs, this has been a dream rather than reality.
Makerere has many challenges. The challenges include underfunding, poor administration, deteriorating and inadequate infrastructure, congestion, unending academic staff grievances, and lack of direction among many others. The 1990s era ushered in a period of higher education reform in Africa and in Uganda, as the government opened up Makerere University to partial privatization by admitting fee-paying, privately sponsored students. This drastically increased the number of students that did not match the available teaching space and staff. Because of poor remuneration, many academics find it easier to leave university service for greener pastures in the private sector within Uganda and other higher education institutions elsewhere. This is a great challenge to the quality of graduates. There are noted media debates as to whether it is the university education in particular that is a problem or the entire education system in Uganda in general that has contributed to the general apathy about the quality of graduates to date. I believe that addressing the internal shortcomings at Makerere University, especially in the teaching and learning sector, is the beginning to correcting the problem.
Difficulties caused by the increased numbers of students without a corresponding increase in the number of academic staff, the dwindling resources from government to invest in training and infrastructure, and an absence of pedagogical training services have accelerated the already severe learning and teaching problems at Makerere University. Out of about one hundred departments, it is only in the School of Education where teaching skills are taught to prospective teachers in secondary and primary schools. While most departments and faculties recruit teaching assistants and assistant lecturers, there are no additional skills given on commencement of duty and there are no institutional mechanisms to help newly recruited university lecturers adjust to their new positions. The Appointments Board, an independent board of the University council charged with recruitment and promotion of university employees, only asks the departmental chairs to allocate duties and super-vise lecturers. This translates to a low quality of service delivery to the students, including teaching skills and lecture hall learning. This is a big problem and usually is reflected in the quality of graduates and the continued poor public opinions from prospective employers.
Comparatively, most higher education institutions in the western world have centers of learning and teaching excellence where newly hired faculty members are nurtured into the practice of teaching and how to become effective teachers in the lecture theatres. Makerere University lacks such opportunities. Even though curriculum review has constantly been part of university teaching and a periodic requirement, the exercise seems futile in the absence of required skills, such as familiarity with a teaching syllabus and course objectives, being an effective teacher, getting students to be actively involved, fostering critical thinking, involving students in community service, using questions and case studies in teaching, etc. In addition, it is difficult to know how to incorporate one’s area of specialization in a course design, into the weekly schedule of topics and learning activities, or into the reading assignments or the writing and analytical activities. This is not in any way to suggest that good teaching and learning does not take place at Makerere University but rather argues for enhancement of good practices already in existence.
Makerere University is currently trying to reposition itself and regain its glory. The university has the mandate to take positive and proactive steps to ensure provision of quality teaching, learning, research and outreach services relevant to the needs of the institution and society. Cognizant of the growing public concerns about the deteriorating standards at the University, and the pro-visions of the legal framework that requires institutions of higher learning to ensure set standards conform to the National Council of Higher Education (NCHE), many teaching units have embarked on revising and revamping of the curriculum. This is mainly to meet the growing challenge of the ill-prepared graduate and making the disciplines relevant at the national and international levels. Given that Makerere University is a dynamic community, the major objective for curriculum review is to provide a stimulating and innovative environment for teaching, learning, research and training. In April 2009, the University Research, Administrative and Financial Reforms (URAFR) Committee was constituted by the Acting Vice Chancellor to start the reforms process. The main task of the Committee was to recommend reforms in the University’s core and support processes, which would lead to a lean and efficient administrative structure. In addition, the Makerere University reforms committee was to produce a working document that guides university officials to ensure quality service.
As a tenured academic at Makerere University, I have noted serious flaws and problems that may impede the smooth implementation of planned internal reforms and innovations. There has been no significant attempt so far undertaken to help retool the teaching members of staff to gain knowledge necessary to achieve the objective of making Makerere University a center of excellence in teaching and learning in the region. Specifically there are observed deficiencies in pedagogy de-livery based on the old concept of lecturing that leaves students only with capacity to memorize rather than being analytical and possessing problem solving skills. Second, there are widespread accusations about academic staff members lacking knowledge and skills to help the university achieve and accomplish her teaching and learning objectives. Third, it is common to find one teaching academic staff member handling a large class without the necessary skills or any assistance. Without proper guidance and training, teaching in such a scenario can be a nightmare.
I am privileged to be a University of Michigan African Presidential Scholars (UMAPS) and to be working with U-M’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT), the oldest center for learning and teaching excellence in the US (established in 1962) to acquire knowledge and skills on how issues of learning and teaching at the University of Michigan are addressed. The six months’ stay at the University of Michigan under the umbrella of the African Studies Center (ASC) allows me to interact with different faculty members and attend workshops to learn about the experience of faculty members on teaching, learning, and curriculum development. At the University of Michigan, CRLT serves the teaching and learning requirements in many colleges and schools. My objective is to learn about what is possible to replicate that enhances learning and teaching at Makerere University. My interaction with CRLT staff shows that establishing a center that addresses issues of faculty development leads to excellent results in terms of students’ learning experiences. I hope that there is an opportunity to replicate such programs for the benefits of many universities in Africa.
Given my experience gained from associating with the University of Michigan CRLT, I hope on return to propose that Makerere should consider establishing a Center for Learning and Teaching to enhance the university mission of providing innovative teaching, learning, research and services responsive to national and global needs, making Makerere a center for teaching and learning excellence.