Meet Schola, the Lady Championing the Move to Centralise Grants Management at Gulu University.
On a sunny afternoon in February, Deborah Scholastica Amito sits calmly in a scantly furnished office within the Administration block of Gulu University. The office’s walls are neat and nothing leans against them. The only table and chair inside there are new. One can tell that they were put there just a few days back, a sign that this setup is a work in progress.
“This is the Grants Management Office,” Amito, fondly called Schola by her colleagues at the university, tells me. ‘Empty’ as it may look this room is seen by the university’s managers as a major step in establishing something important—a central system for managing all grants—and Amito has started that job from scratch.
Back in November 2022 at Gulu University’s new library, the university’s Deputy Vice Chancellor in charge of academic affairs, Prof. David Okello Owiny, told a training workshop in grants management, organised by Amito, and facilitated by a team from Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST): “We [Gulu University] can’t tell how much money we have in grants as a university. The only way to achieve that is to have a centralised grants management system. This is very important for accountability, it is good for visibility, and it is good for writing new grant proposals. “
He added: “You have to show what you have. Donors ask for your capacity to manage grants. The Vice Chancellor [Prof George Openjuru Ladaah] and BSU [Building Stronger Universities] decided that we need to at least have a grants management desk, and that is what we started with, with Scholastica as the first person to take charge.”
Gulu University researchers apply for grants to implement research projects just as it happens at universities across the world. Amito’s job is to establish a system that ensures that all the grants received by researchers in different faculties and institutes, in the name of the university, are managed at a central point.
The desk, established in December 2021, has quickly transformed into an office. This is an added full-time job for Amito. She is already an Assistant Registrar 1, now based at the Faculty of Agriculture and Environment.
“When I got the appointment I was a little scared because this was a totally new area. I had no idea about it. Where would I start? But at the end of it all, I told myself that the fact that they zeroed down on me means that they believe in me. Therefore I must prove to them that I can do it.”
What Amito knows about herself is that she is committed, organised, and has integrity – qualities that are invaluable in the employment world.
“Probably that was one of the reasons why they chose me for this assignment. I am organised in the way I handle my things. I have integrity. I have no scandal. I have worked for the university for about 15 years. Perhaps they looked at my qualities, my professionalism,” Amito tells me.
Amito has the support of the Vice Chancellor who appointed her, the support of the university management which accepted her appointment, and the support of BSU, the project that is facilitating the establishment of a centralised grants management system at the university, but that does not make her job that easy.
First of all, she has her job and then this new assignment. She has to balance them. Secondly, and perhaps more important, is that her new role is actually new at the university, and it is dealing with money.
The new changes mean that Principal Investigators (PIs) will have to go through the grants office to access money to implement their projects, and this of course comes with accountability obligations. While the university management sees this as a support mechanism for the effective management of projects, some researchers may see it as a checkpoint for their expenditures. There is talk of “briefcase projects” at the university, meaning that these are being implemented inconspicuously.
Amito met her first huddle in December 2021 immediately after receiving her appointment when Prof. Ladaah instructed her to gather information on all the projects in the university.
“I wrote to deans and directors requesting them to update me and to my disappointment, out of all the six faculties and one institute, I got a response from only one,” Amito tells me. She was later able to get an updated list of projects from the university’s Directorate of Planning and Development but it lacked some key information, for example, the amount of money for certain projects was not indicated.
“The details are really not there. They are with the individual PIs. Even some of the projects’ team members don't have these details,” she tells me.
The November training was primarily meant to help project and finance managers at Gulu University learn the importance and benefits of having a centralised grants management unit, and also to learn how it operates.
Amito had earlier visited Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana and also led a team from Gulu to Makerere and Mbarara universities for benchmarking. The team was impressed with the system it found at Mbarara, and that is the reason the MUST team was invited to Gulu to conduct the training. Amito did not receive a good turn-up of project PIs for this training.
“The biggest challenge I have encountered so far, I would say, is bringing the PI's on board. This was witnessed when I invited them to come for the training, which was going to give them a lot of information. Unfortunately, most of them did not turn up,” Amito tells me.
She can, however, take solace from MUST that they too faced a similar experience when they had just started.
Margaret Mbabazi of MUST makes a presentation to the staff of Gulu University.
“The grants office was to help relieve researchers of administrative issues so they could concentrate on their research. Some researchers didn’t join. They faced accountability issues. We didn’t force anyone,” said Margaret Mbabazi, one of the facilitators, during the November training.
“In 2011 we had less than ten PIs, now we have 30,” she added. The MUST grants office was by November 2022 managing more than 90 projects with a combined value of USD 15m.
Amito is hopeful that the PIs will respond positively.
“This is the beginning. I must say that the low turn-up has given me the morale to work harder to bring them on board. I really need them. I need them to see the light, so I cannot give up just at the beginning. We shall keep on organizing trainings, we shall keep on inviting them and, I know, eventually, they will come on board. And I think with time, we shall prove the relevance of our office. We shall also win their trust by handling our activities in a transparent manner,” Amito says.
While she engages project leaders, there is a key tool she hopes will make her work easier – the university’s Grants Management Policy. It was approved in December 2022 and it is expected to be launched in a few weeks.
“The policy kick starts the transformation of the grants desk into a fully-fledged office headed by a director or grants manager, and other positions can be filled gradually through the year,” Amito says.