BIG INTERVIEW: Without embracing AI, Uganda risks losing trillions, says Dr Muganga

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BIG INTERVIEW: Without embracing AI, Uganda risks losing trillions, says Dr Muganga
Victoria University vice chancellor Dr Lawrence Muganga

BIG INTERVIEW | In the global race towards harnessing the potential of artificial intelligence (AI), countries like Singapore and Saudi Arabia are making significant strides, appointing Ministers of AI and prioritizing the development of this transformative sector.

The burgeoning AI industry, projected to surpass traditional powerhouses like the internet and gold in value, presents unparalleled opportunities for economic growth and technological advancement.

While nations worldwide are positioning themselves as AI superpowers, Uganda finds itself trailing behind, with minimal discourse and action on AI policy issues.

Despite its potential to level the playing field and bolster various sectors, including agriculture and healthcare, AI remains largely overlooked in Uganda's development agenda.

Speaking to the Nile Post in an interview, Vice Chancellor of Victoria University, Dr. Lawrence Muganga emphasised that Uganda's failure to actively engage in AI discussions poses a significant risk. This lack of involvement not only jeopardizes the nation's prospects but also impedes its ability to tap into the lucrative digital economy.

With AI-driven innovations revolutionizing industries globally, Uganda's absence from the dialogue threatens its competitiveness and economic prospects.

Excerpts below;

How is Victoria University progressing?

The journey has been truly tremendous, from humble beginnings. We are still in a humble state, not as big as we aspire to be. Nonetheless, we are pleasantly surprised by the growth rate and the widespread acceptance of the institution. Witnessing Victoria University become a household name in the higher education arena is truly incredible. We are thankful to God for this progress.

Growth has been substantial, transitioning from attracting around 200 students in late 2020, during the peak of the lockdown, to nearly 8000 students now. It's a significant achievement for all of us at Victoria.

We appreciate the investment from my colleagues, the staff, the students who have believed in us, as well as the parents, guardians, and everyone who has recognised something special about Victoria University.

What has made Victoria University unique that has attracted all these numbers of students within a short span?

As a country, we have specific goals to achieve, and higher education institutions play a crucial role in realizing these objectives. We believe that universities must harness the potential of every individual to contribute to the nation's development.

Victoria University stands out by choosing not to follow the traditional model of education, which focuses solely on imparting knowledge without practical application. Instead, we prioritise addressing societal needs and engaging with the community. We aim to produce graduates who not only excel in theory but also possess practical skills, enabling them to contribute meaningfully to society.

How is Victoria University adapting to the changing landscape of technology?

In response to these changes, we have made Victoria University technology-driven. While other institutions may produce graduates lacking basic digital skills, we have embraced a digital-first approach. Our classrooms are equipped with smart boards, allowing for seamless interaction between lecturers and remote learners. Coursework is conducted online, requiring students to have laptops, smartphones, or tablets.

How have you helped those who can't afford to buy these gadgets?

For those unable to afford gadgets, we have partnered with various technology institutions, whether in China, Dubai, or locally, to provide affordable options. Students can pay for these gadgets over three years, ensuring access to necessary tools for coursework and exams. This approach not only addresses financial barriers but also develops essential digital competency skills among students, distinguishing Victoria University as a forward-thinking institution.

How have you ensured international recognition for your students?

We have aligned our curriculum with global standards, ensuring parity with renowned universities worldwide. Whether it's in Pharmacy or any other discipline, our curriculum meets or exceeds international benchmarks. This standardisation allows for seamless exchange programs, enabling students to study abroad while maintaining continuity in their education.

By internationalising our curriculum, we not only provide students with a world-class education but also equip them with the skills and credentials needed to excel in a globalized world.

Has the government done enough to support higher institutions of learning?

It is a yes and no. Yes, in the sense that public universities receive government funds, as every employee of a public university is paid by the government, utilizing taxpayers' money. The government supports them in this manner. However, there's a dilemma for private universities.

They don't receive any financial support from the government, yet the graduates they produce often end up working for the government, contributing to tax revenue. Private universities, like ours, often face financial strain. We invest in essential facilities, such as a state-of-the-art pharmaceutical lab in Kampala, the largest in the country.

We are one of two universities offering pharmacy in central Uganda. Additionally, we are pioneering the integration of artificial intelligence into our programs to keep our graduates competitive in today's workforce. Despite these investments, we receive no financial incentives from the government.

Now, how do you want the government to support you?

While public universities receive dedicated funding, it's crucial for the government to also allocate resources specifically for research in private institutions. This could involve establishing and approving a separate budget for research endeavors, including provisions for capacity building such as scholarships for staff to pursue PhD programmes.

We're not seeking salary subsidies for our staff; rather, we're advocating for various forms of support, including tax exemptions. For instance, we recently purchased significant equipment valued at nearly Shs250 million through a local company. Despite our application for VAT exemption, citing its educational utility, the Uganda Revenue Authority denied our request. Consequently, we had to cover the full cost, placing a strain on our resources.

By granting tax exemptions and providing dedicated research funding, the government can foster an environment conducive to educational and scientific advancement, benefiting both private institutions and the nation as a whole.

Why aren't private institutions lobbying for government-sponsored students to enroll in their programmes?

I want you to know that we have made attempts, and continue to do so through the Uganda Vice Chancellors Forum. We have a dedicated executive team working tirelessly to engage with various stakeholders. Our goal is to advocate for government support in sending students to private universities. While some progress has been made, with students from government entities enrolling in our institutions, challenges persist.

In the past, we received students supported by the Higher Education Students Financing Board, particularly those pursuing science and hospitality-related programs. However, this support seems to be dwindling due to funding constraints. It's a concerning issue that we are actively addressing and will continue to advocate for.

I urge the government to consider opening its doors to private universities, as we are all committed to educating Ugandans and contributing to the nation's development."

Are you not worried that we are also behind in terms of innovations?

While various nations have made strides in the artificial intelligence sector, Singapore appointing a Minister of AI, and Saudi Arabia doing the same, others are positioning themselves as superpowers in this multi-trillion-dollar industry. It's projected to surpass the internet and any energy resource we've known, with capabilities far beyond anything we've seen before.

This sector could have provided an opportunity for every nation to level the playing field and claim their stake. Yet, while others are making significant policy strides, we seem to be lagging behind.

There's minimal discourse on AI's potential impact, with hardly ten people engaging with it on a policy level. Instead, we risk remaining stuck in outdated agricultural practices while the digital economy, valued at $17 trillion, flourishes without our active participation.

We must join the global conversation and leverage AI's potential to revolutionize various sectors. AI models can aid in drug discovery and modernise agriculture, requiring minimal investment. It's time to embrace AI's potential to transform our nation and propel us into the digital age, where e-commerce and other industries can thrive with its presence.

Aren't we too late now to embrace some of these changes?

It is not too late. What I can really advise my government, my people, my leaders is to develop the appetite to make Uganda have a fighting chance on the global arena, embrace technology that is driving the world to success. We had the traditional way of doing things, but the world has changed, and we can't wait for change to change us. Can we now embrace AI?

Aren’t our jobs going to be taken by AI?

AI is not going to replace people. It will only replace those people who don't know how to use it. It is made by a person, but it will replace a person who has chosen not to embrace it. If as a country we choose not to embrace AI, it will also choose to leave us behind.

Victoria University joins the cream of higher institutions awarding degree in pharmacy

There is talk of amendment of the Universities and Tertiary Institutions Act. Have you heard of it? 

There are so many things we are talking about in the Act. Like I have said, the world has changed. Most of those things were developed in 2001; they have totally changed. Technology has changed so many things. We need an Act that looks like today. An Act that may allow a student to show competencies instead of credit units.

Ask yourself why most of the buildings in Kampala are not owned by professors because they don't know how to do it. We just need to start doing it. We need an Act that can focus on the world order of today, the technology of today, and how we deliver things today. It should be something that guides us to live real life. It should be a growing document; it doesn't have to stay static. There are so many things that need to change on a daily basis as we, as a country, evolve on a daily basis.

What do you offer as a university?

We really offer a variety of things. We do health sciences like nursing, midwifery, nutrition, pharmacy programs among others.

We also do master’s degrees in all those areas I have talked about. We also do business degrees, bachelors, and masters. We do humanities and social sciences bachelor's degrees and masters. We do science and technology; we have cyber security, data analytics, computer science, information technology bachelors and masters. W

e are going to have new programs that infuse artificial intelligence and journalism like the new media programs. By September, we shall have like three programs. In July, I think we shall launch the first PhD programmes.

In which programs can one pursue a PhD?

We will be introducing PhD programs in education, cyber security, business fields, and health science. These programs aim to provide advanced academic opportunities in diverse disciplines.

Additionally, we are collaborating with the University of Alberta in Canada to implement sandwich programs for masters in education and PhDs. These degrees will be conferred jointly by both institutions, enhancing their global recognition. This initiative aims to offer our students and the wider Ugandan community credentials that are universally accepted.

Is this initiative prompted by concerns over our degrees being rejected abroad?

There are numerous factors at play here. Take, for instance, someone who has studied medicine locally. Upon moving to Canada, they face barriers to practicing medicine due to the qualifications not meeting Canadian standards. This often necessitates further education, akin to high school upgrading, to meet the requirements.

This begs the question: what's flawed in our system?

Individuals graduating with degrees in electrical engineering may struggle to address basic issues like a blown light bulb without practical experience, highlighting a gap between theoretical knowledge and real-world application.

We cannot afford to graduate students without practical experience. It's unacceptable, especially under my leadership as Vice Chancellor. That's why we have integrated technology into all our programs. Even if you lack expertise, you will excel at troubleshooting computers, an invaluable skill. We are even incorporating AI into our curriculum.

How many branches does your institution have within the country?

While we don't have physical branches nationwide , we boast East Africa's most comprehensive online learning platform. No other Ugandan university offers the seamless integration of exams, classes, results, and transcripts accessible from anywhere.

How do you plan to address the issue of forged documents?

As for the concern of forgery, we have implemented block chain technology to prevent it. Each graduate receives a unique link to their credentials stored securely on our block chain network. Employers can verify these credentials easily, ensuring authenticity.

Now, let's delve into your collaboration with an Indian university.

The partnership involves a renowned institution known as Ganpat University, situated in a sprawling township spanning over 300 hectares, reminiscent of Kampala. This campus boasts diverse disciplines, including pharmaceutical manufacturing and engineering.

In November, we will send our pharmacy students to this campus for hands-on experience. Rather than mere theory, they'll engage in practical work within FDA-approved facilities. They'll work alongside top-tier instructors, gaining invaluable insights into pharmaceutical production and innovation.

Additionally, professors from Ganpat University will visit our campus, guiding our students through lab sessions and practical exercises. This symbiotic relationship aims to cultivate pharmacists equipped not only for our local needs but also for global markets like India, the US, and Canada, eliminating the need for further upgrading.

Finally, what is your message to the people of Uganda and those who have supported you all these years?

At Victoria University, we are committed to adapting to the demands of the modern era, ceaselessly striving to contribute to our nation's development. In line with Vision 2040, we recognise the pivotal role of technology in shaping our future. Therefore, our programs are meticulously crafted to integrate technology and promote environmental stewardship.

Did you know that environmental protection is ingrained in every aspect of our programmes? Regardless of their field of study, every student at Victoria University learns about environmental conservation and sustainable practices. Moreover, proficiency in technology, including AI, is a fundamental skill we impart to our graduates.

We are dedicated to producing graduates with practical experience through experiential learning. It's crucial for our nation's progress that all educational institutions join hands in fostering a culture of innovation and productivity. Let's collectively embrace technology's potential.

We urge the government to incentivize private institutions like ours, enabling us to further our mission effectively. To prospective students and their families, I extend an invitation to entrust us with their education. Those who have already chosen Victoria University have found fulfillment in their academic journey. We extend our heartfelt gratitude to them and invite others to make Victoria University their educational home.

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