In this paper, focus is on the rock-bottom academic standards at many universities in the country, some of their perceived causes and consequences, as well as personal suggestions for a possible way forward. It should be noted that inflation, the mounting external debt, excessive government expenditure on non-investment goods, high interest rates, and other economic factors will form the subject of another paper in future.
It is with great interest, but without surprise, that I read in the Daily Monitor newspaper of Tuesday, December 5, 2017, about the decision by the National Council for Higher Education (NCHE0 to revoke the provisional operating licences of Busoga University and Lijif International American College of Health Sciences. In the same breath, the NCHE warned Stafford University to pull up its socks or else face the same action in six months' time. I was not surprised because, in my view, the NCHE should have closed down most of the over 40 universities and other degree-awarding institutions of higher education long ago, rather than now. Academic standards, academic infrastructure, physical infrastructure and conducive teaching and learning environments in many of these so-called universities are, and have been for quite some time, at their rock-bottom. This is in most cases irrespective of whether or not the concerned degree-awarding institution is public, private, fully chartered, or operating on a provisional licence.
As is well known, Uganda is currently facing many economic and social problems - ranging from a decayed education system with allegedly rock-bottom academic standards at all levels, decayed morals epitomized by, among other things, rampant corruption and moral decadence to collapsing buildings, collapsing social welfare and other systems as well as a seemingly uncertain political atmosphere. This is in addition to rising inflation, a huge and mounting external debt, excessive government expenditure, and poverty. The social and economic problems just mentioned are pretty serious; hence, should evoke great worry from government, all patriotic Ugandans and well-wishers. One can state with very little error that up to the mid-1970s, these social and economic problems, except poverty and inflation, were not as grave as they are today. In fact, during the colonial days and the early years after political independence, Uganda was very proud of the high quality of her education system as well as the equally high standards of her health, utility and other social services. Her economy was also doing reasonably well until the Idi Amin 'economic war' era; and corruption was too low to attract public attention or concern. It is believed in some circles that these problems surfaced as a result of the 'economic war' of the 1970s and the civil wars that plagued the country between 1979 and the end of the 2000s - including Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebellion. Definitely, this unfortunate period of civil strife did enhance poverty and impacted negatively on economic and other aspects of social development.
Other factors - such as rising inflation, a huge and mounting external debt, excessive government expenditure, and poverty - that are not the immediate concern of this paper - compounded and propelled the above problems as time went on. Unless effectively circumvented in time, these problems as well as the economic factors or malaises will continue exerting adverse impacts on, and slowing, the future growth configuration and path of the country's economy. For example, without decisively and precisely circumventing these economic and social problems, the country's attainment of a (lower) middle-income status by the year 2020 will just be wishful thinking.
In this paper, focus is on the rock-bottom academic standards at many universities in the country, some of their perceived causes and consequences, as well as personal suggestions for a possible way forward. It should be noted that inflation, the mounting external debt, excessive government expenditure on non-investment goods, high interest rates, and other economic factors will form the subject of another paper in future. The underlying analysis in this paper is based on my knowledge, accumulated experience and personal opinion on the issues. The discussion, I trust, is as objective and blunt as possible, and is not at all primarily intended to hurt or discredit any particular or specific individual, group, or institution.
The Education System: From Excellent to Decaying/Decayed
The quality of education attained, disseminated or dispensed in a community to a large extent depends on at least five basic pillars, namely, the nature and characteristics of pupils and students, teachers or instructors, school administrators, parents or guardians, and government as a provider of teachers' welfare, educational physical infrastructure and academic facilities and related social services and amenities. For example, for a school to perform well, it must have good, highly disciplined and well-motivated learners (pupils or students); well-trained, disciplined and motivated teachers; sound administration (right from the head-teacher to the board of governors, teacher-parent associations and other organs of school management); serious, well-disciplined parents and guardians; and a government that takes education as a priority sector in the country's development process. The five pillars jointly play a crucial role in ensuring that the quantity and quality of education in the concerned community at the micro-level and the country at the macro-level are maximised. Sound nurturing and continuous emphasis of these pillars will lead to a highly commendable and vibrant education system in a community and country, while neglect or downplaying of all or some of the factors will eventually lead to decay or suboptimal performance of the concerned education system.
The decline or eventual decay of Uganda's education system, since at least the beginning of the 1980s, can be explained by issues to do with these pillars. Basically, up to almost the beginning of the 1980s, Uganda had one of the best education systems in Sub-Saharan Africa, probably the best in East Africa - with high education standards at all levels. The quality of education in the country was as good as that found elsewhere in the world. For instance, Makerere University was doubtlessly among the best universities in Africa south of the Sahara; degrees, certificates and other qualifications obtained from the university were recognised and acceptable all over the world. For this reason, the university was often referred to by some people as the "Harvard of Africa' - thereby equating the university to Harvard University in the United States of America.
By the mid-1980s, the situation had changed drastically as academic standards plummeted and the physical and academic infrastructures at Makerere University exhibited serious dilapidation. In fact, as highlighted in my earlier write-ups, by the mid-1990s, the university was in a sorry state. The decaying quality of education was not confined to Makerere alone. Academic standards even at the government-aided primary and secondary schools were also high and commendable only up to the mid-1980s; thereafter, the standards at these levels also started declining continuously over time. Hence, education-wise, Uganda was the envy of her neighbours only during the colonial era and the first twenty years of her cosmetic political independence. The picture changed for the worse thereafter.
The number of institutions of higher education (offering degree programmes), in the country rose from one in the period up to 1988 to over 40 public and private institutions currently. As of now, many of the universities and other degree-awarding institutions are known for, among other things, overcrowded lecture halls, insufficient (and sometimes inexperienced and under-qualified) instructors, inadequate teaching and learning materials, lack of the optimal number of senior academicians, insufficient funding, meagre or no research output, and shortcomings in administration and other aspects of good governance. As a matter of fact, all the universities are 'bottom-heavy', with a seriously inadequate number of senior staff, particularly at the professorial levels. Nevertheless, all these degree-awarding tertiary education institutions in the country purport to offer higher, tertiary education, yet the situation at most of them in terms of physical and academic infrastructures leaves a lot to be desired, just like it is in primary and secondary schools. This appears to apply to all public and private degree-awarding institutions in the country - of course, with varying degrees. That is, it applies to Busoga University as much as it applies to Kampala International University, the Islamic University in Uganda, St. Lawrence University and other universities in the country.
Some Common Characteristics of Uganda's Universities
A university is an institution of higher education with at least four functions. These functions are, namely, knowledge generation or production (research), knowledge dissemination (teaching and learning), knowledge preservation or storage (libraries, archives, etc.), and knowledge infusion to the surrounding communities or hinterland (community outreach).
The last three of these functions are also performed by primary and secondary schools as well as other non-university institutions of higher education. The function that distinguishes a university from a primary school, a secondary school and other higher institutions of education ranking below a university is research - the production of new knowledge by extending frontiers of knowledge. No institution has a right to refer to itself as a university unless it is extending frontiers of knowledge. Hence, as I have stated elsewhere, a 'university' without research is just a glorified primary or secondary school, irrespective of whether or not it has beautiful buildings and a well-landscaped and maintained campus. Students will derive maximum benefits if they are being taught by lecturers and professors with considerable research and teaching experiences, rather than by instructors with no or hardly any academic research experiences in their areas of specialisations. Further, the other three functions of a university are immensely boosted by this production of knowledge. For example, an instructor with commendable academic research, and, therefore, a sizeable number of worthy academic publications in the instructor's area(s) of specialisation(s), will routinely update his/her teaching notes and aids, compared to one with no research who will most likely use 'yellow notes' in disseminating knowledge to learners.
As earlier pointed out, Uganda's education system is nowadays a system she can hardly boast of, unlike in the good old days. Things fall apart, and they have really fallen apart in this country!
Most universities in Uganda - and not Busoga University alone - are characterised by, inter alia, low academic standards due to generally poor crops of students admitted, lack of senior instructors, proliferation of poorly trained instructors, poor and sometimes inadequate teaching, learning and research space and facilities, as well as inadequate accommodation, teaching, research and other essential equipment, particularly in the sciences. That is,
1. In most universities, there is a severe scarcity of both physical and educational facilities. For instance, most lecture rooms are overcrowded, and books, computers and other types of equipment are in short supply. In fact, I know of Ugandan universities annually churning out graduates in engineering and a few other mainly science-based fields yet they lack the required number of qualified staff and basic equipment.
2. Many classes, especially in the arts and social sciences, are handled by teaching assistants and assistant lecturers. There is, a severe shortage of senior instructors, such as senior lecturers, associate professors and full professors basically in all universities.
3. Due to this severe scarcity of senior academicians, university curricula or course outlines are hardly reviewed as periodically as stipulated or desirable. Hence, the institutions often keep on using outdated curricula and course outlines. This has a significantly adverse impact on the quality of teaching and graduates.
4. Again, due to the scarcity of senior academicians, the junior staff lack adequate supervision from peers. This also adversely affects the supervision of postgraduate degree theses and other products of research and consultancy work - leave alone the volume/quantity and quality of research output. Of course, a low research output impacts negatively on the type and quality of knowledge dissemination (teaching).
5. Further, given the severe shortage of senior academicians at the universities, it is, therefore, not surprising that very few academic publications come out of the universities. Makerere University appears to be an exception in the sense that, currently, it is third ranked in Africa, after having risen from its 54th position in 2008. Otherwise, many of the universities are actually 'glorified secondary schools', although some of them have beautiful buildings.
6. With many classes handled by junior academicians, coupled with serious lack of adequate research, consultancy, and teaching facilities and consumables, academic standards at these tertiary education institutions have plummeted over time. Hence, in general, the quality of many graduates (output) of the universities is far below par. In fact, available evidence shows that most university graduates are unable to write proper, comprehensible lecture notes and job application letters in English - due to their very low literacy competence levels - in addition to under-performance at work places for those employed. It is a vicious circle, for some of these low-quality graduates are recruited as instructors in secondary schools and the universities, thus compounding the problem. Needless to state, mediocrity begets mediocrity, for action and reaction are always equal and opposite.
7. As corruption has been on the increase and morals are hovering dangerously on the brink of an abyss of possible utter oblivion over time, the universities are vividly wallowing in these vices. In any case, are universities not microcosms of Ugandan society? This partly explains why some underqualified students are admitted to university courses and why unqualified and underqualified instructors are recruited to teach in universities.
8. It is obvious that university administrations and other aspects of governance have also followed this decaying tendency, trend and affinity. It is alleged and there is some evidence that in a number of these universities, the basis for recruitment or employment is 'know-who', rather than 'know-how', as nepotism, cronyism, favouritism and other sectarian tendencies appear to play a non-trivial role in the recruitment exercises. It should also be noted that, in a number of the universities, even recruitment of academic staff suffers from these traits. Indeed, universities are microcosms of Ugandan society!
9. Commercialisation of the universities from around 1992 was actually a necessary evil. Public universities were so under-funded by government that fee-paying study programmes had to be introduced to enable the institutions to survive and thrive. However, the current over-commercialisation has played its part in the process of declining academic standards. In some units of the universities, attention is paid more to the moneys generated by fee-paying students than to the levels of academic standards. A number of the universities are run by the owners in the same way maliba (hides and skins), tea, matooke, or other non-educational family businesses are run - without due attention to crucial parameters like academic standards, employees' welfare and academic freedom. Further, instructors are alleged to be more interested in teaching fee-paying students than teaching on non-fee paying, government-sponsored academic programmes. This is most likely because the instructors earn an extra shilling by teaching on the non-government-sponsored programmes. Over-commercialisation is also one of the variables that explain why lecture halls are often overcrowded.
Insufficient, Inefficient and Irregular Supervision of Universities
Just like inspection of primary and secondary schools in the Republic is very weak, irregular and inefficient, supervision of the universities by the National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) appears to be similarly inadequate and inefficient. The NCHE is the body legally mandated to oversee and regulate the activities of the universities and other institutions of higher education in Uganda. My view is that the NCHE does not have adequate human resources, adequate early-warning systems, enough well-qualified personnel, adequate powers and autonomy, and adequate finances and authority to reprimand 'wrong-doers' in time in order for it to adequately fulfill its supervision and oversight functions as regards the universities. It may, therefore, not be able to enforce even some of the rules and regulations it has itself set up.
Consequently, the NCHE takes a long time to 'discover' that such and such institutions are performing below par. For example, by the time the NCHE swung into action in regard to Lugazi University, Namasagali University, Kampala International University, Busoga University and St. Lawrence University, it was almost too late. This is despite the fact that it had for long been a public secret that something was wrong at these universities. Right now, there are many other universities which are operating suboptimally, yet the NCHE appears not to be aware of this or is feigning ignorance of the public secrets. Isn't the NCHE aware, for instance, that:
1. Some universities - not only Busoga University - are offering academic programmes not yet accredited by the body?
2. Some unqualified or under-qualified persons and/or persons with fake qualifications find themselves teaching even PhD courses at university level.
3. In some cases, a person with qualifications in a specified field (e.g. nursing) teaches courses even at the postgraduate level in a field where that person lacks the required or appropriate minimum qualifications or specialisation.
4. Some Master's and PhD degree theses are 'supervised' (mis-supervised) by persons with inadequate academic qualifications and experience; and at least in some cases the 'supervisor' handles over ten theses concurrently. Are these fairy tales?
5. Some courses in almost all universities are being handled by junior academicians (teaching assistants and assistant lecturers)?
6. There is a severe shortage of professors and other senior academicians in most universities (contrary to the very rules and regulations spelled out by the same NCHE)? And, therefore, that academic standards are very low across the board (allegedly even at Makerere University), in comparison to the good old days?
7. In accordance with the number of established posts in each of the academic departments or units and sub-units of the university, the universities are to a large extent understaffed, in addition to being 'bottom-heavy'? For example, at Makerere University alone only around 45% of the establishment is filled. If this is the case at Makerere - currently, arguably the biggest and best university in the Republic - what about other universities?
8. Research activities and output in most universities are at their lowest, partly because of the sheer lack of senior academicians and partly because of inadequate facilities and the meagre academic and financial resources put aside for research?
9. The student-teacher ratios in most universities are far below the required standards? And that, in most universities, the instructors as well as students are of a minimum, or below minimum, quality (despite having each obtained two E's in 'A' level examinations) - thereby contributing significantly to the declining academic standards? Why do you think the university schools responsible for law have imposed a pre-entry screening examination in the recent past?
10. In some private universities, there is no separation of roles between the owners (Board of Trustees) of the institutions and management? For instance, constant interference and outright participation in administration and management by owners is very common in many of these private education institutions.
11. Many universities are badly governed. For example, I know of universities where university Senates and Councils sit just to rubberstamp decisions of the owners--hence, appointment boards are non-existent or non-functional, students graduate even if they have not fulfilled all the academic requirements of given programmes, administrators with fake or inadequate qualifications and experiences are appointed to various senior positions, sound suggestions to make changes to curricula or to the way the universities are run or managed (mismanaged) are looked at with utter hostility, as such suggestions are erroneously interpreted as hostility to owners or management or both, et cetera?
12. That some seemingly academic degrees awarded by some of the universities are actually fake or honorary (not academic) in the sense that the degrees are far below international standards?
13. That at least one university has awarded some non-academicians outside normal university settings the title of 'professor', yet this title should normally and sensibly be reserved for only academicians on the basis of their sound teaching, research (publications), supervision of postgraduate students, and outreach (contribution to community)? Is professorship one of the honorary (honoris causa) degrees in a university? If so, do these universities' respective Acts of Parliament or charters state so? Isn't professorship earned by academicians through sound teaching, research, supervision and outreach, rather than just granted ceremoniously to all sorts of well-wishers?
14. Most universities under the auspices of the NCHE do not have the required proportion of senior academic staff to the junior staff, as stipulated by the NCHE itself?
15. It is alleged that there is serious corruption in almost all layers of the universities - which corruption has adversely impacted on, among other things, academic standards? And that, unfortunately, this corruption affects students, instructors and various categories of administrators at the institutions?
The NCHE does a good job in linking the universities, nationally and regionally. The weak link may lie with its lack of regular inspection or supervision of institutions under its auspices. Does the NCHE have the necessary qualified personnel to seriously supervise the more than 40 degree-awarding tertiary institutions in the country on a regular basis; or, does the institution have adequate financial resources to source such personnel when required or hire out such activities? Maybe not, except in a few isolated cases of the (defunct) Namasagali University and St. Lawrence University. Hence, even when these serious shortcomings are brought to its attention, the NCHE, for one reason or another, appears to do very little or nothing! Consequently, many universities and other tertiary education institutions get away scot-free with breaches of many of the required norms and standards. This is a terrible situation.
However, grim as it sounds, let the above discussion not be interpreted to mean that everything - such as teaching, learning, academic standards, morals and governance - has totally gone to the dogs. No, not all is lost! Uganda still boasts of some upright people in various sectors of the economy - people who are not corrupt, who are well-trained, and who are efficient and proficient - carrying out their responsibilities and assignments according to levels and standards found elsewhere in the world. There are also education and other institutions in the Republic doing a wonderful job. However, I believe that this proportion of upright and commendable people in the public-sector institutions is small and currently, most likely, diminishing at an increasing rate. This, I believe, also applies, to a great extent, to the private sector in the country - at least as far as universities are concerned.
Suggestions on the Way Forward
As noted, in the past, Uganda used to have and produce the highest quality of all types of personnel. This was when the country's education system, governance, morals and related systems and attributes, although not perfect, were, however, sound enough to produce commendable results or products. In addition to universities outside East Africa, the Universities of Dar es Salaam (UDSM) and Nairobi (UoN) used to assist the country by producing high-calibre lawyers (UDSM), graduate engineers, architects, surveyors, veterinary doctors and commerce graduates (UoN) during the University of East Africa era and the early 1970s. These university products of the good old days used, and continue, to do commendable work in their areas of specialisation.
Does one expect buildings, bridges and other types of physical infrastructure to last their expected lifetimes, or not to collapse or develop cracks, when unqualified, inexperienced, or half-baked personnel is used to put up, supervise and maintain the structures? Will corrupt personnel use the required quantities and qualities of construction materials in appropriate combinations even if they were experienced and well-qualified or not half-baked? Will a system with inadequate or suboptimal funding, governance and supervision produce sound results or products? The answers to these questions are definitely not in the affirmative.
What then is the way forward? There appears to be a singular, unambiguous solution - a unique way forward. This unique path is to overhaul the country's education system and simultaneously increase significantly financial resources to the sector, to urge and require all concerned parties (including individuals, civil society, political parties, governments at all levels, and religious and cultural leaders) to play their part in circumventing the numerous social and economic problems - of course, after removing the big logs in their own eyes. This is, in my opinion, one of the best routes or target objectives policy should be directed at for the good of this Republic. Further, concerted efforts must be directed at fighting corruption, not only in words and preaching but also in deed. We must 'walk the talk', so to speak. Short of this, I believe, the Republic will, almost ad infinitum, continue wallowing in poverty, ignorance and disease, whose sharp pangs will continue grossly afflicting the country.
Busoga University is not the only underperforming institution of higher education. What is taking place in Busoga University is just a tip of the iceberg. The government should act fast to prevent a time bomb from exploding sooner or later. In this connection, the weaknesses and shortcomings of the NCHE need urgent attention by way of increased financial flows to the institution, vigilance, strictness and fighting head-on corruption and other vices at all levels.
December 8, 2017.