Friday August 22 2014

Science courses not the solution to youth unemployment in Uganda

By William G. Naggaga

Richard Branson, the British billionaire and founder of the Virgin Empire, to my recollection, dropped out of high school because it was wasting his time. He was voted by his fellow students as the “least likely to succeed’’ amongst them. How wrong they were! He has overtime been involved in extremely successful ventures, ranging from aviation to cosmetics.

In fact, his planned new venture is commercialisation of “space tourism’’! When Branson started his Virgin Atlantic Airlines flights from Britain to the US in the early 1970s, the more established airlines were so disdainful and most believed he would soon collapse. The early flights had ‘no frills attached’ and the passengers, who were mostly young people on tight budgets, carried their own sandwiches on board. The air fair then was also incredibly low. Virgin Airlines is now one of the biggest carriers in the world, operating state-of-the-art planes and flying to all continents of the world. There are many Richard Bransons, men and women who have beaten the odds and risen to the top.

They didn’t have to study sciences or arts for that matter.
President Museveni, while recently officiating at a function at Ndejje University, remarked that Arts courses were “useless’’ and urged students to study science courses. He did not elaborate on the job availability for scientists in Uganda. On earlier occasions, Museveni had indeed appealed to students to refrain from Arts courses (which he did himself at university) and appealed to those who have done these ‘useless’ courses to join the army and police. Now this is a contradiction. Why does the army and police recruit people who have done ‘useless’ subjects?

Instead of condemning the study of humanities, President Museveni should instead direct his minister of Education to overhaul the education system, which has unfortunately gone astray to say the least, especially in the last 30 years or so. Universities have mushroomed all over the place and tertiary and technical institutions have been sidelined in preference for universities; some of which actually produce half -baked graduates.

In the industrialised countries, technicians, mechanics, artisans, welders, electricians, draftsmen, etc., are the type of people industries depend on. Recently, the companies drilling oil in Bunyoro sub-region revealed that they were importing welders from Kenya and South Africa because there were not many qualified welders in Uganda. It is important that talented young men and women should be guided towards equipping themselves with marketable skills, both in sciences and in the Arts. It is a myth to claim that sciences are better job creators than Arts.

As I have written in this column before, in advanced democratic countries, creation of jobs for the citizens is directly or indirectly a prime responsibility of any government and failure to do so will cost the government the next election. Although most of the jobs are in the private sector, the enabling environment and policies for their creation lies with those entrusted to govern. The enabling environment can be in the form infrastructural investment, policy frameworks, tax breaks, provision of right seeds to farmers, affordable loan schemes , market promotion, to mention but a few. No government is allowed to abdicate from this responsibility as happens so often in many developing countries where leaders are not fully accountable to the citizens.

Uganda should borrow a leaf from countries like South Korea which not only reformed the education system to fit the market place but vigorously supported industrialisation through a number of incentives, similar to those listed above. Teaching science subjects per se will not deliver jobs to the 85 per cent youths currently unemployed in Uganda. Deliberate and proactive policies and initiatives will.

Mr Naggaga is an economist, administrator and retired ambassador