Twelve Years of Transformation: The Building Stronger Universities programme leaves a lasting mark on Gulu University
Gulu University in Northern Uganda has undergone a remarkable transformation over the past 12 years through the Building Stronger Universities programme. This collaborative effort between Ugandan and Danish partners has significantly enhanced the university’s research, teaching, as well as the universities outreach capabilities, and also the methods of knowledge development and sharing.
By William Odinga Balikuddembe
The Building Stronger Universities (BSU) initiative was launched in Gulu in 2011, just five years after the devastating 20-year civil war that ravaged Northern Uganda.
Recognizing the important role of Gulu University in the region’s recovery, the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs identified it as a vital institution for furthering research and knowledge-driven progress. Denmark’s support to Gulu University is in line with the strategy for development cooperation, “The World We Share”, and Agenda 2030 of “Leaving No One Behind”.
The first phase of the programme, BSU 1, (2011- 2014), focused on stability, democracy and rights. Two key elements of the programme were addressed during this period: PhD training and the use of information and communication technology at the university. The second phase, (2014 – 2016), was a continuation of the first phase, while the third phase, (2016 – 2023), focused on transforming education and e-learning as well as rights, resources and gender.
Much has changed over the past dozen years. At the programme’s inception in 2011, the Faculty of Education and Humanities, where the programme was hosted, lacked PhD degree holders and professors. Furthermore, the university’s bandwidth was limited to a mere 2 megabits per second (mbps), and the accounts department still relied on Excel sheets for their operations. Research capacity was generally underdeveloped.
Fast forward to November 2022, when Gulu University organized a conference to mark the official conclusion of the third phase of the BSU programme. The event provided an opportunity to celebrate the significant growth in individual and institutional capacity achieved over the 12-year period.
One of the programme’s most notable achievements has been the 27 PhD candidates it supported across several faculties and institutes. The Faculty of Education and Humanities, for example, witnessed a remarkable rise in capacity, with the number of PhD degree holders increasing from zero to 11, five of whom had been supported by BSU. Similarly, the Faculty of Business and Development Studies now boasted six PhD degree holders and a professor, five having been attained with the assistance of the BSU programme. Furthermore, BSU supported three PhD degree holders in the Faculty of Science, two in the Academic Registrar’s Office, two in the Dean of Students’s Office, and one in the Directorate of Planning. All in all, BSU contributed to 14 graduated PhDs and 13 who will soon finish.
In terms of technological advancement, Gulu University experienced a substantial improvement in its bandwidth and competences. The initial 2mbps was upgraded to 5mbps under BSU I, further increased to 30mbps under BSU II, and eventually reached 133mbps with the support of BSU III. This boosted research, teaching and learning.
Mr Perez Masiko, the ICT Chief at Gulu University, said that the current capacity was at least 50 percent of what the university required.
The ideal capacity is at least double the current capacity. The university is committed to gradually increasing the capacity up to at least 200Mbps, according to the strategic plan 2020/21-2024/25, and that would give the university at least 75 percent of its ideal target, which would be good enough. This is subject to resource availability, in terms of funds, said Mr Masiko.
Furthermore, the programme facilitated the development of four PhD programmes, seven master’s programmes, one bachelor’s degree course, four postgraduate diploma courses, and eight crosscutting courses. Additionally, the university formulated ten policies to guide its operations. Notably, Problem Based Learning (PBL) and E-learning methodologies gained traction within several faculties, particularly at the master’s level, thereby diversifying the university’s teaching approaches. Through these delivery modes, the university provided training in 21st century skills to enhance graduate quality and employability.
The participatory approach
In addition to these concrete outputs, the programme’s impact extended beyond Gulu University, involving numerous institutes, faculties, and external partners, including local governments in northern Uganda and NGOs. This expansion was no accident, but a deliberate undertaking led by Dr Agatha Alidri, the BSU coordinator at Gulu University. This was based on the principle of taking the university to the community through community engagement.
Reflecting on the programme’s early days, Dr Alidri noted that when she began working with BSU in 2012, inclusion was a relatively unknown concept.
When I began working with Building Stronger Universities in 2012, one can say it was like a briefcase programme within the university. BSU was not known. It was for a small clique. You would hear the name, but you would not feel the impact. We wanted to change that and become a participatory programme that would be useful for the many inside as well as outside the university, said Dr Alidri.
The key to achieving this was adopting an inclusive partnership approach. Dr Alidri and her team first invited the Faculty of Business and Development Studies to participate, followed by the Institute of Peace and Strategic Studies (IPSS). They even involved the Faculty of Science, despite BSU initially being for the humanities and social sciences.
A breakthrough in getting more faculties to take part came when the BSU began running crosscutting courses, that would be of benefit across the university and across the community. Now also the Faculty of Medicine and the Faculty of Agriculture were brought into the fold.
Dr Collins Okello, the Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture and Environment, said the first BSU supported activity he participated in was the development of Gulu University’s graduate student handbook in 2017. Two years later, his faculty entered into a major partnership with BSU III under the component called Access to Innovation.
Under the component Access to Innovation, the Faculty of Agriculture and Environment and researchers involved in the Danida supported project Unlocking the potential of charcoal in Northern came in to provide support to BSU as part of our Biosystems Engineering workshop. Our interest was to develop low-cost energy as an alternative to charcoal to limit deforestation. We came up with innovative and very appropriate technology for converting agricultural waste, such as groundnut husks, into energy. That built a strong collaboration between our faculty and the BSU project, said Dr Okello.
Mr Paulino Vusso, Chairman of the Adjumani District Elders’ Forum (ADEFO), is among those outside the university who have closely collaborated with BSU. Adjumani district hosts the biggest number of refugees in Uganda. They are mainly from South Sudan and they are settled on land donated by local communities.
They [BSU] came in and supported us to establish a documentation centre where people can learn about the host community and the refugees. Refugees and the hosts can also learn about each other and appreciate each other from here. The centre reinforces the spirit of peaceful co-existence, said Mr Vusso.
The collaboration with the Danish partners
The consortium of Danish university partners made a significant contribution to what the BSU programme at Gulu University accomplished. The Danish partners included Aalborg University, Roskilde University, Copenhagen University, and the University of Southern Denmark. The collaboration also provided an opportunity for the Danish partners to learn from their Southern partners, leading to equity in the generation and use of new knowledge.
Through collaborative research and joint supervision, Gulu University and its Danish counterparts not only published joint research papers but they also gained a deeper understanding of each other’s research needs and academic culture. The partners learned how to do things in a different way. They adopted a new communication and dissemination strategy, especially with regard to the non-academic world, by working closely with the media to meet the current information and knowledge needs of society.
Additionally, in 2021, the BSU collaboration gave rise to three significant research projects with a combined value exceeding UGX 8 billion. The first project, UPCHAIN, centres on climate change and its implications. UPCHAIN is focused on mitigating climate change from below, especially at household and school level. By approaching the research questions from a Southern perspective, this initiative brings unique insights and novel solutions to the forefront. Another project, CONSCOV, focuses on the effect of Covid-19 on the reproductive health of adolescents and youth – a critical yet neglected area that demands attention and comprehensive understanding. Lastly, an investigation into the realm of information and communication technology (ICT) in the PBL – Hybrid project rounds up the trio of research endeavours.
For the consortium of the Danish partners involved, the emphasis was on fostering research capacity and understanding the urgent research questions posed by Gulu University and Northern Uganda, said Prof. Lone Dirckinck-Holmfeld, the coordinator of the Danish partners in the project.
We carried out collaborative and participatory research on transforming education and rights, resources and gender; we collaborated on developing problem and project-based learning; and we supported teachers, students and the institution in developing competences and policies within the realm of ICT. The overall aim was for Gulu University to become a research Centre of Excellence on digital and transformative learning.
With these achievements, the 12 years of BSU I, II, and III, can justifiably be described as transformative.
Watch videos of selected partners and beneficiaries of the Danish-Ugandan university collaboration at Gulu Universities and the Danish counterparts.
Doctor Agatha Alidri, BSU Coordinator, Gulu University
“Within BSU institutionalization met operational excellence.”
Lone Dirckinck-Holmeld, ICT Professor, Aalborg University
“In BSU, we don’t transfer knowledge; we co-construct it.”
Dr Collins Okello, Gulu University
“The key for developing local technologies”
Stella Laloyo Apecu, Gender Studies, Gulu University
“BSU: came at the right time, targeting excellence – we hit the bull’s eye!”