Legacy – VC Senyonyi thoughts on education backlash of pandemic
Originally posted at: https://www.ugandapartners.org/2020/07/legacy-vc-senyonyi-thoughts-on-education-backlash-of-pandemic/
At the end of August 2020, the Rev. Canon Dr. John Senyonyi says farewell to 19 years of service at Uganda Christian University (UCU), having come first in 2001 as a chaplain. He has been vice chancellor since 2010. He retires in the midst of COVID-related, government orders of education shutdowns. In this two-part series, UCU Vice Chancellor Senyonyi gives his thoughts on the pandemic and other aspects of his leadership and the university. This July 6 interview was conducted by John Semakula, a UCU graduate and lecturer.
What has been the impact of closing the University due to the Coronavirus pandemic?The most obvious is finances of the University. Since the University largely draws its livelihood from student tuition, when students do not pay, the University is incapacitated. Moreover, the loss of revenue is equal to the period of closure. Therefore, if the University reopens next year, it also means that revenue lost probably will be for almost a year. That is over Sh50b (roughly $13.5 million American). In this case, the impact will be felt long after the reopening of the University. But then this affects many other aspects. The first and most painful is the Human Resource because it brings in many dimensions, as it should for any human being. Staff members cannot be paid. They suffer anxiety about the next meal, which could lead to distress and breakdown. Others consider abandoning University employment and look for where else to turn for gainful work. One can only imagine how all these affect the familial relations and other social interactions since in losing their monthly salaries; they are also likely to lose their self-esteem. People who think less of themselves than what God made them to be usually reflect that into the eyes of others. This is immediately followed by the impact on our students. In joining University, the students have the expectation of a straight and determinate period of study ending in completion and readiness for gainful work. This has been interrupted.
How can students be helped to continue studying amidst COVID-19?
COVID-19 has highlighted the need to run affairs differently. One evident positive impact is the enhanced exigency of online learning. As a University, we already had an e-Learning Lab that enables us to tap into online resources worldwide. We have been training staff members in e-Learning, and we have had a policy on entering students coming with laptops for many years. Unfortunately, many have until now considered these as luxuries. The present pandemic with its resultant restrictions has woken everyone up to see that if they do not shape up to this new normal, they will shape out of higher education in particular. Staff members are compelled to urgently train and apply the new technologies to remain relevant. The future has no room for ICT illiteracy.
What’s the fate of students who were supposed to study between May and August?Inevitably, there is going to be a rescheduling of the Academic Year to accommodate them – every delay implicitly reschedules our Calendar. First, we need to lead our Easter (January to April) Semester students to complete their examinations. The University remains committed to helping all students complete their requisite studies. This means that, depending on what is allowed, Trinity Semester (May-August) students may be brought back cautiously or complete their studies remotely. But we are also cognizant of the Advent (September-December) Semester students and the same applies to them.
How do the students who did not sit for their exams in April fit into your plan?
Of course they need to sit for the examinations before progressing to their next Semester or graduating. The mode of examining will depend on how National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) handles the new normal situation; UCU is able to administer either the Take-Home examinations or the face to face, although the latter now appears to recede in probability with each passing month of the lockdown.
And international students who didn’t return home due to the lockdown?
We continue to take care of them but of course they are idle. The Ministry of Education and Sports asked for their details, which we gave them. We did receive some help consisting of some food and body care items, but it is obvious that three months later, they cannot be living on those right now. So, the University has for long shouldered them single handedly. I cannot say how long we may be able to support them with food and board given that we do not have any revenue inflows at this time. The solution will be when foreign travel restrictions are lifted, and they are able to return to their nations. Moreover, some of these are students who were progressing to either the Trinity (May) or the Advent (September) Semester. I may conjecture that if they are caught up with time and need to restart in their scheduled subsequent Semester, they may not go back but continue with their studies.
Have you learned any lessons from the closure of the University due to COVID-19?
No one living has ever seen such a global pandemic that results in restrictions as severe as we have witnessed in the COVID-19 environment. Most pandemics or epidemics are restricted geographically. Although UCU has had an Emergency Response Policy for years, it never anticipated a global pandemic. Furthermore, in the past we have used the term global village to refer to non-pandemic influences. Now, we have to ask how to live in the new global village in light of such life threatening pandemics. At this time, I may have more questions than answers for I am not sure we have learned the “last” lesson yet.
- Will higher education still be relevant?
- Can our University remain viable?
- Are our e-Learning systems – staff, students and equipment – robust enough?
- How can we ensure business continuity if something as severe as COVID-19 happens in the future?
- How can education remain uninterrupted when all decision making is removed from our hands?
- How can we make online learning amenable to UCU’s holistic education?
The answer to all these questions, and probably more, will be a matter for serious discussion for any institution that wishes to live above such disruptions.
Which projects haven’t you accomplished because of the coronavirus pandemic?
There are doubtless many of these that I would have wanted to see completed, but I will mention just a few. About three years ago, I considered that my mission with UCU would be satisfactory if I accomplished four projects:
Ntawo Land: Securing this property is key to the financial health of UCU because if exploited it has the potential to generate revenue to alleviate UCU’s deficits. The continued forceful occupation of our land without any tangible benefit is a setback to UCU.
UCU Roads: I also thought it good to work toward the UCU roads. I was hoping that by the end of my contract that all roads would be covered. But alas, the costs had skyrocketed within less than three years to unmanageable levels.
E-Learning: At least the University now has an e-Learning Lab. The prohibitive challenge that has thankfully been highlighted by the present lockdown and may now be overcome more easily is staff and student training and use of online services more. For years, we have labored to get students and staff to own ICT gadgets and to learn their use with casual attention. COVID-19 has made online learning mandatory. I pray that when the University reopens, staff and students will be the main drivers for these modern resources. I also wanted UCU to have a Management Information System (MIS) that would essentially digitize all operations of the University, especially for our customers, the students. This is well on the way and most of it should have been completed but for the COVID-19 lockdown.
What is the cost of running a closed University during the lockdown?
The biggest cost is intangible; it is the staff and students whose life and livelihood has been disrupted irretrievably. We cannot tell a staff member or a student that this lost time will be redeemed. Neither can we estimate the personal cost each has suffered. I know we have many heartaches out there, and I hate looking in the eyes of these dear people without a solution to their present hardships. At the same time, while we put brakes on expenditure, some of the needs of the University do not go away simply because it is closed and there is no revenue inflow. So, another painful cost is spending without collecting revenue; we are running downhill without an end in view. Ordinarily, the barest minimum I would need, without counting loans, maintenance costs, etc., is over Sh. 1.7 billion ($460,335) per month, but we have tried to cut that down to chewable monthly bits so that the University remains afloat for a few months.
How do you feel about handing over your office to a successor when the University is still closed because of the Coronavirus lockdown?
It is admittedly a mixed bag of feelings. On the one hand, who wants to continue in this situation dealing with a daily crisis? On the other, I really want to support my successor to find some footing as he steps into the crisis.
Where shall we find you in retirement?
If it is about location, my wife and I hope to move into our own house on Mukono Hill. Career-wise, I want to rest a bit but also to read and write more during the initial months of retirement.
How has the UCU environment contributed to the growth of your family?
It would be wrong for me to say UCU has not contributed to our family growth though it is not easy to point at every aspect of that contribution. We came to UCU in January 2001, but really relocated to this Campus in May of that year. At the time, we had two of our children in Secondary School, and two still in primary school. Today, all of them are adults and graduates from different universities. Two attended UCU for their first degrees. As a family, we have been reminiscing about this since we arrived at UCU, and we are very thankful to God. We depart knowing that each of our children can now earn and live an independent life, and each of them has called upon Jesus to come into their hearts. I wouldn’t ask for more.
How do you feel that your tenure as Vice-Chancellor has come to the end?
Of course I will miss the friendships forged at UCU, and the familiar routine that comes with a prolonged stay in a station. At the same time I look forward to the relief of setting aside the stressful life of daily decisions with meager resources. I also look forward to living in our own house, something we have never done in all our working and married life.
What are some of your key achievements as Vice-Chancellor?
Interestingly, I started out faced with some doubters about if I would manage to run the institution. Some of that is a result of replacing a white man; very unfortunately, many Ugandans do not believe in themselves. The thinking that we cannot successfully replace a white man persists, and this is mainly because of the belief that a white man comes with money. So, one of my major achievements as far as I know, is to run the University and make some capital developments using Ugandan resources. It will surprise many to hear that I have not been receiving millions of foreign money to do what we have done; I have received no capital development money throughout my 10 years as Vice Chancellor. Moreover, during my first years, some students tried my nerves. They probably thought that I would be a push-over. It soon became clear to them that when I believe something to be right, I stick to my guns. But even more importantly, they have grown to respect my leadership, not to fear me or dread me. They know that they have had a friend in me, and I care for them. The hard decisions such as fees increments were not done to hurt anyone but for the good of all. Being accessible to whoever has issues has also been a key component of my leadership. I shun a leadership that is fenced from those we lead. No staff member or student who has sought my audience has failed to see me. They have been my priority. Finally, the growth of UCU is there for anyone to witness. UCU’s status among higher education institutions as well before Government and general public speaks for itself so much so that other universities and Vice Chancellors have come to benchmark with UCU.
What are some of your regrets for the period you have been Vice-Chancellor?
I honestly do not have many regrets except for two: I am saddened by the continuing illegal and forceful occupation of squatters in our land at Ntawo, some of whom are in Government and boldly stand in our way to make use of our land. Therefore, up to now the University has a choice piece of land but is helpless and unable to build up its own endowment. Secondly, there is the challenge of unfair taxation on not-for-profit education institutions. It would help to learn from other nations about the primacy given to higher education, its role in national development and how they have brought it to the fore without endangering their economies.
The interviewer, John Semakula, is a graduate of Master of Arts in Journalism and Media Studies of Uganda Christian University (UCU). Currently, he works as the supervisor of The Standard newspaper and lecturer of journalism and Communication at Uganda Christian University (UCU). John worked as a Senior Writer with the New Vision newspaper for eight years.
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