Just weeks before the new school year begins, uncertainty has gripped Uganda’s education sector, after the government proposed to cap fees and service charges.
This week, private owners and trustees of sponsored schools rejected the cap, leaving parents in a quagmire.
The proposed regulation that the Ministry of Education developed after weeks of reviewing data seeking to tame managers of private schools from increasing fees and other charges that they regularly impose.
The proposal came into the public domain towards the end of last month with confusion reigning as to whether the proposed fees structure will apply immediately.
The next term begins on February 6, yet the schools had issued different fees structures to parents.
Sensing animosity towards the regulation, the Ministry of Education beat a retreat, saying the new fee cap was prematurely leaked to the media and that the final decision will have to be agreed on by all stakeholders including private school owners and foundation bodies of government-aided schools.
“It has ramifications on universal education coverage targets,” says Dennis Mugimba, the spokesperson of the Ministry of Education.
“Our hands are tied now. We cannot discuss it before it is decided on by the executive wing of government. As you know education is not provided only by government. There are foundation bodies to consult, private school owners… because simply imposing this fees cap without their input, affects learning,” Mr Mugimba added.
But parents are already agitated, questioning the logic behind the regulation – which leaked to the media before it could be discussed by Cabinet and circulated as a statutory instrument for implementation next term. Isaac Nuwamanya, a parent, says the proposed fees structure is an increase of more than 300 percent for parents who have been paying Ush150,000 ($40) per term in some of the nursery schools that charge modestly, which will now have the proposed Ministry of Education regulation to cite as to hike fees.
There is further confusion among the different associations of private school proprietors. Some support fees caps while others argue that the government’s proposal is not implementable in a liberalised education sector.
David Mugisa, the Executive Director of Uganda National Association of Private Schools and Institutions (UNAPSI) says that even with economic hardships of the day, this is something government should have addressed long time ago, because the law allows the Ministry of Education to intervene in matter of fees.
“Schools have been fleecing parents,” he said. “And I know this is going to be unpopular, but let’s say the truth. It’s not about Covid-19, Ukraine war or the global economic hardships. It’s simply extortion. What are you charging all this money for, when students come with all school requirements?”
According to the UNAPSI boss, there are many schools that operate on a much lower fees structure, and they deliver quality education, which means others can also deliver service within the proposed fees caps, without compromising on quality.
“I don’t know whether it’s timely or too late or even implementable, but it should be enforced,” he added.
However, Hasadu Kirabira, the chairman of National Private Education Institutions Association (NPEIA) says the new regulation is unfair to private investors, religious bodies and other non-state actors that have invested millions of dollars in the sector, and now dominate service at secondary and tertiary level.
Last week, after NPEIA addressed the media and issued a statement rejecting the government’s plan, he termed it hypocritical that the state last year increased science teachers’ salaries by more than 100 percent.
“This proposal is not looking at the challenges under which we operate but still manage to give quality education. It’s a policy that will suffocate us,” Mr Kirabira said, citing the list of operational costs, annual inflation, implementing the new curriculum that requires retooling of teachers and infrastructure costs that private schools have to contend with.
Tier one secondary schools in Uganda, which charge over Ush3 million ($810) for new students, but the figure drops to Ush2.6 million ($702) for the subsequent terms after some of the one-off requirements like uniform are paid for, remain out of reach for students from poor families.
Most tier one schools are government-aided, and are founded by religious bodies whose mission is to lift the livelihoods of their faithful, especially the poor, but these schools are run semi autonomously and levy the highest fees to maintain their high academic, infrastructure and standards.
Fr Ronald Okello, Executive Secretary for Education at Uganda Episcopal Conference, he told The EastAfrican that the Catholic Church is aware of this contradiction, there is little the apex body of the church can do to compel its tier one category schools to lower the fees.
However, the fees structure of Catholic Church founded schools continues to be unaffordable for children from most middle class-the average families.