UNTIL A FEW weeks ago, Prof Venansius Baryamureeba was the Vice Chancellor (VC) Makerere University. But having been defeated in the race for new VC, Baryamureeba recently unveiled his own Uganda Technology & Management University (UTAMU) which has been up and running for the last three weeks now.
John V Sserwaniko caught up with him for a one-on-one interview and below are the excerpts:
QN: You recently unveiled your own university UTAMU: how well has it gone?
ANS: Ugandans have received this university with enthusiasm and as we speak, 415 have picked and returned applications to study here. Another 862 have done the same on our website. Of course they visit the website for different reasons; some are just being curious. Because we don’t want too many students than we can qualitatively cater for, we shall screen and not everybody who applies will qualify. The excess numbers will be pushed to the next session: we are to admit in sessions. We shall have sessions of few students because we are in this to set standards and give quality education. 50 is optimum for us for undergraduate and 10 for graduate programmes. They must be adequately supervised.
QN: Tell us about your staffing levels?
ANS: Certainly nobody will do that well than us. We aren’t doing everything. We have gone into our niche area of IT and Management. We have two categories of staff including the PhD holders who can be appointed as lecturers, senior lecturers and associate professors. Our appointment and promotions policy is such that once you are a Professor at UTAMU, then you can qualify for it anywhere in the world. The NCHE guidelines are very clear. For master’s degree holders we shall appoint them to teach only with relevant experience of seven years. We shall have graduate fellowships [for graduate students to handle tutorials for tuition waivers in return] but not teaching assistants. When you see the advert on our website you will see we have the highest concentration of PhD holders in our relevant core areas. We have the best employment terms because we expect no less than quality output. Our contact hours [face to face] will be 15 hours per Semester. In other universities its 45 hours. For us the remaining 30 hours will be to study online. In the past this online arrangement has been abused. You find mercenaries sitting exams for others at a fee. Ours will be done at UTAMU registered centres with surveillance facilities to ensure the person turning up to sit the exam is the right student we enrolled. I’m talking about finger-printing and facial recognition.
QN: Tell me about this online thing: how does it work? A lot of people don’t understand it well?
ANS: I will give you an example. You have a professor at Harvard or Amite University delivering his content face-to-face for 45 hours in a Semester. You get everything recorded: the students’ questions, answers and interaction. Someone records all these lecture series and it’s then put online where students admitted here use their passwords or facebook/ twitter accounts to access it. You can keep playing the recording back and forth like a movie. You can pause and rewind which is advantageous. We are also developing our own content to be put online and accessed in the same way. We are putting all textbooks and questions for each chapter so that there will be room for self assessment. Then you sit a progression exam or test at the end of every chapter. Students are put into online groups and they all have online accounts. There will be online tutors for every course. Amite University, our India-based partners, has professors tutoring across the globe. UTAMU teams are to be integrated into that network of professors scattered globally. We are sure the youths would like to have tutorials via online chats. It’s appealing to them. We shall also utilise video conferencing facilities to facilitate learning during the 15 contact hours. A professor stands before a smaller class in India or USA but is actually teaching 400 students across the globe via Video Conferencing. They ask questions and have all form of interaction. This isn’t something very new. Open universities in South Africa, Tanzania and UK do it. It’s called Tele-education which is the new way to do distance education. At Makerere students come for two weeks of face to face and they leave with notes and then return for assessment. We are going to do it differently using ICT. Students here don’t have to come to a physical library to pick books. All you need is an ipad, a netbook or a laptop with internet. A resource center is in place already and all registered students will access material on our e-library without necessarily having to be at campus.
QN: How has the corporate world reacted so far?
ANS: Very positively. Orange and Forris Telecoms are providing ipads and netbooks with internet connectivity at prices students can afford. For instance Shs250,000 a year which is okay compared to the cost of hostel or transport for universities where a student must go to class or library at campus every day.
The Orange and Forris partnership is to ensure a student can read from away and yet access library and other services electronically. Parents will appreciate this will keep their children studying at home and be supervised as opposed to hostels which keep them away every four months. The parent should be happy for his or her 18 year old child to be away from home for 1 month of face-to-face and at home for another five months. NWSC has agreed to have an MoU with us to use their Port Bell road-based international resource center building in Bugolobi to facilitate our video conferencing needs in the initial stages. NWSC needs our expertise in some areas to train corporate clients.
These are things we shall implement jointly. It’s by the way not very expensive to set up video conferencing facilities. It’s about $100,000 and this is capacity we have although putting up such facilities will be in the later phases. We have a five year tenancy agreement with TWED consult the owners of this building (Opposite Fair Way Hotel) we are occupying now. They have many buildings in town and the MoU obligates them to avail more space should UTAMU be in need of such. I’m flying to France to sign MOU with Paris-based ESCSCA, which is one of the best 5 business Schools in EU countries.
In the whole Africa, it’s only partnering with one University in Egypt. Uganda will be second because of the confidence UTAMU has inspired. I shouldn’t be telling you this but also a lot of people in government and business have been approaching us seeking to come on board and inject money but we are saying ‘wait a minute.’ For all these to so early interest it’s all about having confidence in the people behind this project. We are a team of tried and tested people. We are patriots and this is why we are charging just $1,200 for our programmes which is unprecedentedly low given the quality of programmes we are offering.
QN: Tell us about internship arrangements because this has been a challenge for other universities?
ANS: Our model is going to be different. We want our intern students to work with communities and companies directly. We want to have an ongoing arrangement and it will be cheaper and win-win for all of us: the student, the university and the companies and the local governments. The problem has been interns not being supervised. We are doing it via skype where a supervisor keeps in touch with the student and company or local government without going there physically.
This isn’t rocket science but technologyenabled learning. We are planning ahead. We have arranged with banks for, for instance, BBA students. We want the HR departments to have permanent arrangements so that they are full time working as interns without having to come and go. The student could be with us at UTAMU for one year and spend the other two years working and studying with the bank. USE products are too many to all be catered for by these brick and mortar universities. We want to be the pace-setters and this isn’t doing a favour to anyone in government but it’s our duty. We aren’t intending to monopolise anything but want to be part of the revolution to digitalise distance learning in Uganda. A student can be one year at campus and in the field for the remaining two years so that they become more practical. This year over 100,000 are sitting A’level but universities can absorb only like 50,000.
UTAMU is here to plan for the rest by streamlining distance education. After PLE and UCE many drop out and we need a programme to skill these people without being very expensive. We are in dialogue with people in government on how this can be implemented. You could have a compulsory programme to have all S6 graduates go through profession skilling programme for one year before enrolling into university. All that we are here to partner with government to have it done: this can address the gap we are having for skilled people in certain areas. UTAMU team must be one of the very best to implement IT policy and programmes in education, government and administration. We want to work with NCHE to guide in regulation of IT policies in higher education. I have worked with NCHE for a very long time and I know where we can partner.
QN: Tell us about your legal status?
ANS: We are initially operating as legally registered entity in Uganda besides the interim authority certificate from NCHE. This legal status is all we need initially to attract partnerships and sign MoUs with top universities in UK, US and India. This is something this country needs. Many parents have means to send their children to best universities abroad but some of them don’t even know how to distinguish real from quack universities. Smart Nigerians have been duping our people.
A lot of them have certificates claiming to be from some of these high sounding universities abroad yet in actual sense these are fake universities. UTAMU has put in place a verifiable mechanism for parents and students to escape that exploitation by conmen. These are well intentioned universities but Nigerian quacks have been discrediting them. We are saying let’s help you with interface because we are sure you know what you want for your child as a parent. That will ensure you will know where to go and who to sue if anything goes wrong.
QN: How are you going about the requirement to meet standards for corporate governance?
ANS: The law requires we have a governing council and a board of trustees since we are a private university. Ownership will have to be different from management. The names of members for these two bodies are already in place: people have been approached and accepted to serve and the list will be on our website in two weeks time. These are people who believe in the vision, otherwise you get a stalemate. This will be a model university not just to make money but service provision and pace-setting. All the people we have on board must appreciate best practices in IT and management. If we find ourselves having you on board when you are IT illiterate, first thing is to train you. Our council will have 9-11 members and board of trustees will have seven.
QN: Lastly tell us about funding and the real investors behind this multi-million project?
ANS: I will be frank with you: the initial funding is from senior founding staff members. This is how it happened: a good number of us PhD holders with IT and management backgrounds met and said we need to come up with a model institution. We looked at money and saw it wasn’t a lot. You are over 20 PhD holders and each of you can raise a minimum of Shs100m and that was it.
Some offered to mortgage their properties in Kololo and other places if it became necessary to get bank loans in the second phase. We preferred to have UTAMU controlled by people with relevant professional backgrounds rather than those with just money. At later stages we intend to float shares for the East Africans to own this institution but we must demonstrate its profitability first which we are going to do. A few of us agreed to come out openly and be known but others preferred not to be known at this stage.