The move by government to implement the students’ loan scheme to increase equitable access to higher education is timely. The loan comes at a critical time when the majority poor risk failure to finance higher education.
But the loan, capped at Shs4 million per student, meets only tuition and costs of learning aids and risks leaving behind more deserving poor who won’t be able to cost-share the burden of accommodation, meals, and transport.
Moreover, the scheme minimises chances for the needy to access courses critical to national development because it privileges the sciences over the humanities.
And because more poor students excel in the humanities than the sciences, the needy won’t after all, benefit as much as the wealthier ones. This initiative risks the chances of the poor not completing the higher education cycle as projected.
Foremost, needy pupils from rural Uganda start out from disadvantaged UPE and USE schools where drop-out rates are very high. Besides, they have poor exposure to the sciences. A few of the UPE pupils with lowly grades progress onto USE schools with ill-equipped science laboratories. This means their options for the sciences are hampered at A-Levels.
This poor start locks out the needy UPE and USE pupils from pursuing sciences at university, leaving the loan scheme to benefit the privileged. The scheme, therefore, fails to even out socio-economic and educational imbalances.
Indeed, as Prof Ssentamu Ddumba of Makerere University argues, this initiative should have focused on bright children from poor families.
It is not too late to review the scheme to adopt a bottom-up approach since schools meant to supply students for the university courses are struggling.
Performance in O-Level core science subjects remain very poor. Less than one per cent of the candidates in 2013 scored a distinction in Agriculture, Physics, Chemistry and Biology. These poor grades cannot feed university courses critical to national development.
But the scheme can be made to work. The government should heed the calls to address the shortage of science teachers as requested by the Kyambogo vice chancellor, and the university council chairperson.
Government must urgently rework the loans scheme from below and create well-equipped science centres of excellence at O-Level and A-Level schools to open up access to all.