Monday August 25 2014

Deal with root cause of poor performance in sciences

President Museveni was last week emphatic on his position regarding the teaching of Arts courses in higher institutions of learning. This was during the launch of a modern laboratory at Ndejje University in Luweero District where he described these courses as “very useless courses”. This is not the first time the President is criticising and de-campaigning the teaching of these courses, which according to him, have been the leading cause of unemployment of university graduates in Uganda.

It is indeed true that majority of students prefer Arts subjects over sciences, which explains the high demand for Arts subjects in Ugandan schools, universities and tertiary institutions. It is also desirable that the country balances between these subjects so that we avoid the current situation of shortage of doctors and other medical personnel.

Unfortunately, we cannot change the situation overnight or by simply criticising and discouraging the teaching / learning of these subjects because words without actions cannot achieve our objective. If we identify Arts courses as the problem and wish to advocate for sciences, we must first of all establish why more students are opting to study Arts. Some of these reasons include lack of necessary infrastructure in schools to aid the study of sciences, especially laboratories.

The 2012 Uganda Certificate of Education examination results exposed the continued poor performance of science subjects which the executive secretary of Uneb attributed to lack of laboratories for some schools, lack of equipment in some schools that have laboratories and non–utilisation of the laboratories for those that had the equipment, especially government schools.

This comes as no surprise especially considering that the few teachers in these schools are always complaining about the meager salaries they get, which are also paid late; hence have no motivation to teach. This is the reason many students face these experiments for the first time during exams despite existence of fully stocked laboratories in these schools.

The few students that are able to make it through this stage are faced with more hurdles ahead. The Daily Monitor of August 18 reported that medical students under the Uganda Medical Interns Association petitioned Parliament to intervene over the dwindling internship slots at Mulago hospital apparently due to the fact that the Ministry of Finance had not budgeted for Mulago hospital intern allowances which led to reduction of admissions.

These difficulties, coupled with the unattractive remuneration of health workers can only push prospective scientists further away from these subjects leaving only a few who are passionate about the profession, that later excel and look for financially attractive markets outside the country.

It is about time we realise that improving the infrastructure without attracting the requisite human resource will not achieve the desired goal. If a student has to struggle through the existing challenges noted above and receive poor remuneration when they finally get employment, for instance in the teaching profession, the younger generation will not be motivated to take on science subjects.

Interventions like the Students Loan Scheme, which according to the Scheme brochure, would initially benefit 1,000 students to pursue science-related programmes in both public and private universities, are not beneficial if the underlying problems of equipping and utilising laboratories as well as an attractive remuneration for health workers and teachers are not addressed, since these loans will later be repaid from the meager salary earned by the scientist as a health worker or teacher in future.

Ms Byiringiro works with Uganda Debt Network.