“Success in the 21st Century isn’t about how much you know, but what you can do,” Dr Tony Lusambu Mukasa, the assistant commissioner for Primary Education quipped during a recent Stanbic Bank Education Forum themed: “ What next for Uganda’s Education System?”
So, at what age should a child be productive to the country’s economy? It’s a question I posed to Alexander Kyokwijuka, the Dean of Students at Management Training Advisory Centre (MTAC) in Nakawa, Kampala, who says age 10 is ripe for a child to be productive.
Kyokwijuka who grew up in Kigarama hills in Kabale District, was introduced to vocational training at a tender age, and he reminisces the good old days where at Primary Three, he engaged in handiwork by making winnowing trays, fishing gear, mats and hoe handles which the local community later bought from the school.
“If at that age, I could make a product that can be used in homesteads, I don’t see why someone cannot be engaged in production such as baking for instance,” he says. Money making ventures
Kyokwijuka shares a success story of a colleague who engaged her children in baking doughnuts during the Covid-19 lockdown. The children aged 16 and nine together with their mother started with a capital of Shs30,000 and have made doughnut sales worth Shs 700,000.
The World Bank indicates Uganda’s median productive age is 16 making it the youngest population in the world.
However, Uganda’s education system is a four tier structure modeled along a 7-4-2-3 year progression pattern: seven years of primary education, followed by four years of lower secondary or ordinary level (O-Level), two years of upper secondary or advanced level (A-Level) and three to five years of tertiary education.
This model therefore shows that a Ugandan student spends an average of 16 years in the education system until they graduate.
However, the number of years a student spends in school could be much longer with the advent of early childhood education programme.
Inspite of spending a lot of time in school, employers are not impressed with the quality of graduates churned out every year, who lack key practical and emotional skills to survive in the job market.
This debate was reignited early this month by academicians and employers at the education forum. With the degree losing relevance each passing year. Ann Juuko, the chief executive officer at Stanbic Bank Uganda, says companies are shifting their recruitment models away from asking for academic papers to testing key skills such as creativity.
“We need to train students to be lifelong learners and with skills that are not class related,” she says.
Juuko notes that more than 400,000 Ugandan students graduate every year, but only 10,000 make it to the job market.
Kyokwijuka concurs with Juuko’s argument that top companies in the world no longer consider the degree as the ultimate neccesity in recruitment but rather, competence and skills.
Where’s the problem?
Prof Mahmood Mamdani’s analysis of the Arts Faculty in the early 1990s in his book, Scholars in the Market Place, pin points to why there’s no homogeneity in learning and the industry. He writes that in the early 1990s, the Faculty of Arts at Makerere University was presented with a dilemma. Students’ applications were declining at the time, with talk in the corridors of closing down the faculty.
However, Prof Mamdani writes that Dr E. Beyaraza, a lead reformer in the faculty, recalled at a workshop that the real issue was what one would do after getting a degree in Geography, History, Languages, Literature, Music, Dance and Drama (MDD), Philosophy, Religious Studies, among other areas of study at the Arts Faculty’. The simple fact was that these subjects—known as BA ‘Flat’—had a contemplative, reflective and laid-back feel to them. They represented the elitist core of a university curriculum of colonial vintage.
Freshly returned with a PhD from Germany, Dr E. Beyaraza understood that the Faculty of Arts was severely handicapped when it came to competing in the job market place.
Prof. Mamdani writes that Dr Beyaraza later recalled: “It is possible to commercialise education whereby powerful industries infiltrate universities and sponsor courses therein, tailored to those industries’ needs. In this case, Arts subjects are hardly as [good] candidates as sciences, technology, among others,” he noted, and explained that what was important to note, however, is that in Uganda, such industries and their possible commercialisation of education are absent.
The reformers were determined to transform the faculty. Their rallying cry was simple: relevance. And their notion of relevance was wholly market-oriented: only those skills were relevant for which there was a demand in the market place; thus, change the curriculum to teach students skills that would get them jobs.
The reformers had a bold and most unorthodox answer to this dilemma: simply take any Arts subject, join it with a skill in demand and teach the combination as a single course.
Prof. Abdul B.K Kasozi presented a paper titled: ‘Transitioning African universities from mainly teaching to both training and knowledge production institutions,’ at the15th RUFORUM annual general meeting at University of Cape Coast, Ghana in December, 2019.
Prof. Kasozi noted that industries in the job market are only interested in funding profitable areas of teaching and not research.
As a result, most of our universities are teaching institutions focusing mainly on the “production of skilled manpower” with little attention to research, knowledge production and innovation.
An article from the Lancet journal, shows how backward Africa is in knowledge production. It states that although the continent has 13 per cent of global population, its contribution to global research output is just one per cent.
Prof. Kasozi mentions that the major cause for Africa’s failure to produce knowledge is lack of state investment in research and development and making the university the core of national innovation systems.
Research output in science, technology, engineering and mathematics in Africa has been declining by 0.2 per cent each year since 2002 although there have been some increases in the life and food sciences areas.
One of the major causes of Africa’s failure to contribute to knowledge is its failure to throw away the neoliberal mentality of thinking that the market can effectively fund higher education yet market models regard education as commodities for sale and education institutions as merchants selling education products to customers called students.
Ruth Musoke, head project, Skills Development Facility, Private Sector Foundation Uganda (PSFU) while at the education forum argued that commercialising education has led school proprietors to throw caution to the wind by largely focusing on grades, which has partly corrupted parents.
With digitisation taking over education systems across the world, Uganda is still lagging behind.
However, Edgar Kasenene, director at IDEX Africa says Uganda’s education system has not shifted faster to the digital system to create curiosity among students. Akampa Ronah, a senior four student at Gayaza High School, says the challenge is students have not been trained to question what’s being taught in schools.
“There’s a lot of academic censorship that teachers are not free to engage students to make them relevant to the industry,” she says.
“There’s disconnection between the market and learning because the framers of the current curriculum, have never comprehensively engaged the industrialists and companies to know what is needed in the market and incorporate it in the design of the curriculum,” Kyokwijuka says. It renders the education system with a theoretical curriculum that doesn’t empower people to be job creators.
Musoke says the private sector has a role to play to create a paradigm shift with the need for collaborations with universities and other tertiary institutions and use data generated to improve research. Additionally, she says, teachers across all levels should be exposed to the industry.
“Teachers have no idea what they are offering on careers. Companies should be willing to be visiting lecturers in schools and universities.”
Abdul Kibuuka, a human resource expert at True North Consultancy opines that the old guard in academic institutions and industries should pave way for the young turks by giving them chance to handle projects so as not to kill talent. He adds that the degree has a shelf life of five years after which one is required to upgrade because of the changing technological landscape.
Dr Lusambu says all is not lost since there’s improvement in the teacher training curriculum to help in creativity but also mentions challenges such as lack of implementation where a lot is put on paper but with less will for implementation. The success of the lower curriculum, according to Kibuuka will only depend on the mode of delivery.
“If a child is being taught how to cook, engage the child in the process,” he says.
He says the new lower secondary curriculum was designed to solve such challenges and put the student at the centre of learning and is practical based with hope of employment at end of O-Level.
Financing higher education
Writing from an African perspective, Prof. Kasozi says African states, Uganda inclusive, must increase funding for universities, especially their research functions. Good education, particularly higher education, is key to development as it is now clear that states which have moved into middle and upper income levels planned and have got excellent higher education systems.
“If Africa is to move forward, it must have education systems that can develop the capacity of its people to create relevant knowledge, to disseminate this knowledge, to train thinkers and to apply acquired knowledge in society,” he says. In short, Prof. Kasozi explains that Africa must focus its attention on having an effective higher education system with the university as the core of such a system.
To do so, Africa must adequately finance higher education in order to reposition the university not only as a training institution that it is today but also as a major engine and instrument of development. To achieve this goal, universities will not only need funds but also good governance.
Blue collar jobs
In 2022, a year from now, the Skilling Uganda programme will come to an end. Designed in 2011 and implemented in 2012 with investment support from the World Bank, according to Dr Safina Musene, the commissioner-business Technical Vocational Education and Training (BTVET), the programme sought to overcome a challenge where the education system has not been producing the appropriately skilled workforce that Uganda required to increase income and employment and to compete internationally.
This plan underscores a paradigm shift in skills development in the country with an emphasis of creating employable skills and competencies relevant to the labour market rather than educational certificates as was before.
However, she says in the last eight years of the programme, there has been a campaign to positively change the image of vocational education in Uganda which was viewed negatively.
“Ugandans did not recognise vocational education as first class education,” she says, “but this image is being improved to create a shift that it’s not simply about attaining a university degree.”
With TVET policy in place, she says vocational training is demand driven and employer-led.
Statistics from the Ministry of Education indicates that total enrollment in technical and vocational colleges’ stands at 109,305 students.
“The trainers in vocational institutions must come from the world of work and employers and vocational institutions should work hand-in – hand with the provisions in the policy to produce what is required with the world of work,” she says. With many reforms in the education sector, the key factor remains that students must learn from the world of work. And when they graduate, they are competent.