Three years ago, Samuel Imbadi eyed an under-graduate course in Electrical Engineering. Kyambogo University was his choice institution.
An Advanced-Level subject combination of Physics, Economic and Mathematics (PEM) theoretically placed him in good stead to achieve his dream.
When results of the 2010 Uganda Advanced Certificate of Education (UACE) were released in early 2011, Mr Imbadi garnered 8 points, significantly lower than what is required for admission for a Bachelor of Electrical Engineering degree course. He was dejected.
His colleague and alumni of Old Kampala SS opted to repeat, enlist as private students on other university course(s) or drop out altogether – and many of last year’s A-Level students, whose resulted were released yesterday, face similar choices.
Uganda’s largely theoretical education focused on literacy, numeracy and the learning has encouraged recitation and memorisation, but not practical skills crucial for innovations, production and wealth creation. Yet the country has chosen sciences over humanities, which President Museveni preaches as the right medicine to transform Uganda.
But what does his government do to realise this vision?
The A-Level results show some 76, 151 obtained at least two principal passes, which ideally qualifies them to enlist for post-secondary education.
Government sponsors only some 4, 000 students at the five public universities; Makerere, Kyambogo, Mbarara, Gulu and Busitema. Others with handsome financing will enroll and pay for – perhaps buy – degree courses at these public and the other 27 private universities.
However, several thousand will miss out either because they lack money for tuition or have significantly lower scores than the threshold admission requirement.
So what are the alternatives, or should they even be second-rate options?
“Successful candidates”, Education Minister Jessica Alupo said while releasing the results on Tuesday; will get university slots.
She added: “I must (however) encourage A-Level leavers to seriously consider enrolling for technical, vocational and other courses at diploma level that lead to employment opportunities at the middle-level in the economy in both formal and non-formal sectors.”
Experts criticise such casual – almost derogatory - manner in which bureaucrats rate technical and vocational training as an anathema.
According to Fagil Mandy, an education consultant who chairs the country’s examinations body, “people managing education don’t understand and articulate the critical role vocational and technical skills play in a nation’s transformation”.
This skewed view is premised on the “deceptive” notion that tertiary institutions are for ‘failed students’, who in turn pity instead of asserting themselves, the former commissioner in the Ministry of Education said.
Self-pity is what Imbadi felt before he found himself offering a diploma in Automobile Maintenance and Repair at Nakawa Vocational Training Institute, a few kilometres from Kyambogo University where he originally intended to enroll.
“At first I didn’t like [the idea of joining a technical institute],” he said a matter-of-factly, before an exposure to vehicle handling at a garage during his vacation changed things.
Now he relishes the sight of vehicles he has helped fix wheeze out of the Nakawa workshop – a fulfillment that only a hand-on involvement can bring. “You get the real feel of doing something, not just the theory,” he said. Besides, there is money to make for upkeep and Imbadi, 22, just started his 2nd year at the institute.
More, university students doing the related courses come for practicals at Nakawa Vocational Training centre where Imbadi says he has on occasions shown them “how to do mechanical and electrical things”.
“People should stop looking at Business, Technical, Vocational education and training as a last resort,” said Paul Amoru, spokesman of the statutory entity that examines these courses. “We are looking for the best brains, not failures.”
A person who learns automobile servicing like Imbadi will become a mechanic, another one smart in wood work can own or be employed at a workshop making fine furniture and diploma-level masonry training produces a fine builder – all job creators of sorts.
And there are at least 10 public institutions offering diplomas in diverse fields such as cooperatives and business administration, boat building and marine mechanics, fisheries management and technologies, cartography, physical planning, land management and valuation, surveying, meteorology as well as wild life and allied natural resources management.
So, why are these courses that give practical skills often shunned by students and parents?
The problem, Mr Mandy says, is negative perception. To surmount it, he proposes that institutions (see list in table) should be well managed, financed and the theme of apprenticeship and vocational training articulated and popularised by all education stakeholders.
That tosses the ball back to government’s court. Primary and secondary schools offering practical subjects such as metal or wood works and technical drawing are an exception, rather than the rule, and persuading uninitiated students after A-Level becomes an albatross.
Mr Amoru says Parliament’s enactment of the Business, Technical and Vocational Education and Training (BTVET) Act, establishing Uganda Business and Technical Examinations Board (UBTEB), means the country is on course to streamline and exercise control in technical education. That would entail deeper reforms in the education sector.