The liberalisation of university education in Uganda has over the past two decades given way to phenomenal growth both in the number of institutions and enrolment of students, but debate about the quality of education in these institutions still rages on.
The National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) lists at least 39 institutions registered as private universities on its website. However, some are still operating on provisional licenses and have to work closely with NCHE to get charters, while there are many others offering lower qualifications at diploma and certificate level across the country.
Within the universities themselves, phenomenal growth has been registered as administrators compete to create new courses in a bid to attract as many students as possible.
About half a million graduates join the workforce every year seeking white-collar jobs. A common complaint by employers is the quality of graduates both from public and private universities.
Recently, public universities have been plagued by incessant complaints about inadequate funding from the government, which has led to strikes at Makerere, Kyambogo and Gulu Universities.
A 2012 study done on funding of higher education in Uganda suggested that whereas liberalisation of higher education resulted in increased enrolment and contraction of government funding, public universities have been kept from charging competitive fees.
Executive Director for Uganda National Council of Higher Education (NCHE) John Opuda Asibo links the challenges to a shift in government policy, influenced by multilateral donors from focusing on higher education to lower levels in the mid-1990s.
He said that higher education stopped being seen as a priority.
“Initial investment in the higher education system is very low in Africa compared with other levels of education. This is bound to affect the sector,” Prof Asibo told The EastAfrican in an interview on March 23.
According to NCHE the gross enrolment ratio of students in university education in Africa is at 40 per cent. In East Africa Uganda has the smallest number of enrolment at only 6.8 per cent, while Kenya’s and Rwanda’s is at nine per cent.
Primary and secondary levels of education are given more attention compared with university education. Prof Asubo said there has been insignificant investment both by the government and the private sector despite the ever growing numbers of students who enrol to get a university education. This lack of investment has affected staff morale and welfare and impacted negatively on research and creation of new knowledge which should be at the core of university education.
In his book, Scholars in a Market Place: The Dilemmas of Neo-Liberal Reform at Makerere University 1989-2005, Mohamood Mamdani said a push to privatise university education and allow self-sponsored students resulted in commercialisation of Makerere Univerisity and by extension other universities. Like Prof Asibo, Prof Mamdani argued that a policy shift saw university education become more of a private than a public entity.
Privatisation saw courses being developed to suit the demands of the job market in a bid to attract students at the expense of the country’s actual skills and knowledge needs.
Another problem is lecturers seeking work abroad or pursuing private consultancies.
“This has affected the quality of education here in Uganda. It has made it depreciate because we have pushed our best brains out of the country,” said Saul Waigolo public relations officer at NCHE.
When a government chooses to limit its own involvement in delivery of a critical public service, focus turns to strong regulation to ensure standards. Prof Asibo, whose council is charged with regulation of standards, says this has become a major challenge.
The Council does not licence public universities and therefore cannot sanction them and when it has raised reservations about the creation of some public universities, political considerations have often tended to override technical evaluations.
“We as the National council do not have the authority to close down such institutions especially if they are owned by the government because they are enacted through the law thus can only be handled by the law itself,” said Mr Waigolo.
Prof Asibo said the regulation of private universities has also at times proved challenging as the institutions are able to get injunctions from the court against the Council’s orders especially when is has sought to cancel licences.
Last year, the Council cancelled a provisional license it had granted Busoga University after the institution graduated over a 1,000 mainly Sudanese and Nigerian students against NCHE’S order not to. It was alleged that the students lacked entry qualifications to enrol in university and there was no evidence to show they had completed all the necessary course work and examination requirements to graduate.
Another case involves Fairland University whose license was cancelled but remains operational after getting a court injunction.