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How Makerere lost Shs 3bn on Fort Portal campus

Prof Ddumba-Ssentamu

In 2010, Makerere University council approved a process that would see the institution expand its operations across the country, through satellite campuses.

The first of these was the Fort Portal campus, previously a district demonstration farm. The second was the Jinja campus. CHRISTOPHER TUSIIME has been looking at what happened to the process, leading up to the closure of the Fort Portal campus.

In April this year, Makerere University formally closed the Fort Portal campus, arguing that it lacked the requisite number of students and funding to maintain it. According to Dr Ali Twaha Basamba, who was the acting principal at the campus, the centre had never drawn more than 200 students per academic year, yet the institution was expected to hold a minimum of 1,000.

“The university [council] made the right decision, in my opinion, to close the campus. They made a loss of Shs 3bn over the five years [they ran the centre]. How can you continue making losses in the name of giving education?” Basamba asked.

He explained that the centre was opened on the back of several pleas from the western region leaders and communities. He added the campus was meant to serve students hailing from the districts of Kasese, Bundibugyo, Kamwenge, Mbarara, Ibanda and Kabarole, as this would be closer to their homes.

It was initially located at Kyembogo, in Hakibale sub-county, before it relocated to the Tooro Kingdom administrative seat at Mucwa, where it occupied the education and health buildings.

Basamba explained that the loss resulted from the huge costs incurred to pay lecturers’ salaries, and other services to run the campus, with very few students. He insisted that the campus would not reopen.

“If government had come in to help us, at least, but even government kept quiet,” Basamba said.

The vice chancellor, Prof John Ddumba-Ssentamu, concurred, before adding that all students at Fort Portal were invited to study at the main campus in Kampala. Those who accepted the offer received free accommodation.

“We agreed with the students that we should actually close the campus because we were making losses,” Ddumba-Ssentamu said.

When asked if the Jinja campus was under similar threat, Prof Ddumba-Ssentamu sought to assure students there.

“Jinja campus is running very well. The number of students is now close to 1,000 and classes are going on normally… But we have no hopes of revamping Fort Portal campus,” he emphasized.

Dr Basamba added that all the scholastic materials including computers, library books at the doomed campus have been transferred to the Jinja campus.

STUDENTS SPEAK OUT

Yet amid all this, there is evidence that the students are unhappy about the closure of the Fort Portal campus. Several students led by Moses Mugisa, a second-year student of Business Administration, dragged the university to court for breach of contract. They accuse the university of unlawfully closing the campus and relocating them to the main campus.

Mugisa, in particular, argued that the closure would affect his businesses in Fort Portal. However, the High court Judge in Fort Portal David Batema, advised the two parties to settle the matter out of court. The two parties, later conceded that students could choose to go to Makerere or end up in Jinja.

One of those who agreed to drop the law suit, Vincent Ngonzi, a third-year student on the bachelor of Commerce programme, said they were asked to sign documents, agreeing to the relocation. “Last week they also gave us new admission letters with new halls [of residence],” Ngonzi said.

However, he complained that the cost of living in Kampala was far higher than at the Fort Portal campus

“My parents first refused because I could help them with house chores and even I couldn’t buy anything. Now here, I spend on meals everyday; life is not really simple,” he said.

Irene Kabayonjo, also a third-year student on the bachelor of Commerce programme, says her business has suffered.

“I had my shop in Fort Portal town and was also engaged in some agriculture. So now, I’m not doing anything to earn some income yet tuition is not easy,” she lamented.

For David Mugisa, also a course mate to Ngonzi and Kabayonjo, the move to close the Fort Portal campus has had ripple effect on the development of the region.

“We lost an opportunity to develop our western region. We were going to produce more professionals in various fields,” he said.

However, he is happy that they are getting exposed to city life and making new friends. “At main campus here, I’m always seeing conferences taking place in the main hall. When I attend, I expand on my knowledge and get a new perspective of looking at things, something that wasn’t at Fort Portal campus,” he added.

DIRE COST OF CLOSURE

The district leaders, who initially rooted for the campus, are upset about the closure, of what was the district farm institute. Enter Kabarole district Chairman, Richard Rwabuhinga.

“As leaders, we strongly opposed closure of Fort Portal campus because first of all,” he said, the emotion written on his face, “it was a sign of development in our area, and had also brought quality education close to our students. So, if the university has been closed indefinitely, then we have lost what we can’t replace.”

Rwabuhinga added that the district, which had hoped to develop the farm institute into a major centre of excellence in agriculture, is now undecided on what to use the place for.

According to Basamba, some of the local leaders recently appealed to the speaker of parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, to prevail on Makerere to reconsider.  However, he says this is unlikely to yield any fruit.

“But really I have been there for five years and I didn’t get the support that I wanted, what did they want me to do?” he questioned.

For Basamba, the move may also have some consequences for his personal career progression. He was promoted to an associate professor of animal production in 2013 by the university senate.

He was eying further progression to full professor, while still in Fort Portal. Now he looks set to return to the college of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at Makerere campus. 

tusiime.chris20@gmail.com

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