Higher Education in Uganda: Relevant or Irrelevant?

Published on 4th September 2007

Uganda’s development is largely determined by the status of education, environment, urbanization, oil industry, nature of governance and agriculture, to mention but a few. However, no single determinant in isolation of others fully elucidates the country’s development destination.

In Uganda, education takes the lions share vis-à-vis development. Uganda is one of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa that is endowed with oil and favourable environment. It is called the pearl of Africa! But to be sincere to ourselves (Ugandans) and to the so called “Donors” or “western powers” what is the status of our education system: Pertinent or irrelevant?

Plans to mine oil are in final stages but very few courses that are pro-oil industry are in existence! Let’s think globally and act locally (relevantly). Graduates in environmental management courses are still looking for jobs on the streets of Kampala. Why? They were taught how to manage the environment but not how to improve or protect it. They cannot turn Uganda’s environmental degradation into a business opportunity! Uganda is rapidly urbanizing but very few courses address urbanization in Uganda. Instead, students are being taught how disastrous urbanization is in New York! Course content in Africa should be adjusted to meet African realities. The status of higher education in Uganda is partly contrary to our development needs.

Uganda’s irrelevant education stems from a combination of interrelated factors. These include: high enrollment, the inadequacy of resources to replenish educational supplies, limited physical facilities such as classrooms, libraries, laboratories and residences; lack of small group tutoring and remedial support; outdated curricula that are not regularly reviewed to accommodate current development needs; shortage of qualified staff; pre-occupation of staff with non academic activities; brain drain; weak research and publishing activities; poor access to latest scientific information and poor management.

Citizens, Government and Civil society organizations need to come together to make our higher education more relevant. At a time when higher education is being transformed from a monopoly of the elite to embrace the masses and when global forces are revolutionizing the way higher education is delivered, the role of a regulatory agency is very crucial. That is why the National Council of Higher Education (NCHE) was set up by the government of Uganda to regulate higher education and guide the country in the establishment of institutions of higher learning as well to ensure the delivery of quality and relevant education”. (Journal of the NCHE, Vol.1. October 2004) The NCHE is a statutory agency, watchdog for quality and relevant higher education established under the Universities and Other Tertiary Institutions Act, 2001 to regulate and guide the establishment, management and quality  of Institutions of Higher Learning.

The expansion and status of higher educational choices in the 21st century should be related to market demand. The era of education for all is over. The question of what one studied is vital. For instance in Uganda, this has spread a little more to development studies, medicine, management and computer oriented courses. These are being started in a large number of private and hurriedly set up unrecognized institutions. Informal discussions with experts in the Universities have shown that courses on development studies, computer applications and business administration among others, are registering a higher enrollment of people in Uganda. It will have to be viewed whether all people interested are joining highly specialized courses leading to upper end jobs or only training as data entrants. The burgeoning management related courses, media, advertising, mass communication and those relating to business studies and administration are the other emerging disciplines in Uganda.

The popularity of vocational courses at undergraduate level stem from their being conduits to management courses at graduate level. The specializations offered in these courses are system, finance, sales, marketing and human resource management or development. Courses in management studies and business administration are also quite popular among people in urban centres. 

The private sector has entered the higher education sector in a big way due to its immediate returns from student fees and less government restrictions. Higher education, until recently was state controlled and highly subsidized to the extent of being almost free. The only exceptions were what are known as “capitation fee” colleges set up since the 70’s and 80’s countrywide. The establishment of these development, medical, computer or business colleges was governed by politics and profits.

In Uganda, the old idea of higher education being an arena for the pursuit of disinterested knowledge by a community of independent scholars is now threatened by the current developments in the economy and society at large. If the perception is not addressed fully, higher education in Uganda will absolutely become irrelevant.

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