Uganda’s exams shame: How market can fix it

Wednesday November 13 2019


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

On Tuesday, the Daily Monitor published a very depressing story about 16 students around the country, who were barred from sitting for their Uganda Advanced Certificate of Education (UACE) examinations over uncleared school fees balances.
Thirteen years of school, and just like that, a chance to make a run for a university entrance is snuffed because of failure to pay, in some of the cases, just Shs50,000 (or $13).
Put another way, their lives could have been ruined for just about one third the price of a 12-piece chicken pack at a KFC in the Angolan capital Luanda! In fact, a similar pack of chicken at a KFC in Kampala, last time the figures were reported, cost $16.
The school administrators were heartless and inconsiderate, but they weren’t evil. They simply stuck to the rigid rule – after all, though some of the 16 students’ families couldn’t afford to cover all the fees – tens of thousands of others did. Still, there is something shockingly wrong about the fate of the 16.
One of the affected students in Iganga, was remarkably calm under fire, and deserves a gold medal considering the circumstances.
“But why have they done this to us? Why have they made our studies a waste? It was very unfair (emphasis mine),” he is quoted as saying, “amid tears.
It was not “outrageous”, “an abomination”, “the work of the devil”, no, it was simply “unfair”. I expected he would end by threatening to commit suicide, he didn’t.
People like that are what will save this country, so we need to do better by them. So what solution might work? I don’t think the Kampala government can do anything smart here except make good policy, but only if it’s shown the way.
I am a humble Ugandan of modest means, but even I could afford to pay the outstanding fees for all the 16 students. However, there are thousands of people in Uganda who wouldn’t notice if the $208 (assuming each students owed $13) was stolen from their jacket pocket if they left it on the back of their seats while away on a bathroom break.
But let us stick to our small (or medium) people group who can find $208 a year. There are probably 1,000 of us who can answer the call in a space of 24 hours if we were asked to invest in this cause. That is $208,000 right there. But we will probably not do it just as an act of charity. The pot would need to be sweetened.
In some countries, especially the US, there is already a small market trading in school fees. If I paid $208 for the 16 students, they could be obliged to either repay me at a 20 per cent interest a year after they graduate or get a job if they opt to go to a technical college or drop out and become entrepreneurs; or offer me a wager on 20 per cent of their salary for the first six months of their earned income.
The latter sounds a little predatory, but a compassionate model can be developed.
We investors would be getting a return that is nearly impossible in a legal business. How this market for school fees would set up in Uganda, I am not sure. In other places, these debts are sold by colleges, or students who assess that they will face difficulty paying their fees in the future. It’s good business, according to reports I have read.
In any case, what it means is that few students would fail to sit their life-defining final exams, because they owe their schools $13. The fund could also cover some of those, even more tragic, cases where the headmaster collects exams fees and eats it, leading students to miss their tests too.
Where would this fund sit? It’s probably too messy for banks to want to handle. And, certainly, not the government. It would certainly be stolen, and government doesn’t trade in this kind of thing.
However, we have seen that in recent years, Uganda’s National Social Security Fund (NSSF) has been quite business savvy, and got gongs as the best such Fund in the region several times. Where the law permits, they have got some good returns on workers’ funds investing it in the region.
If NSSF (or an organisation like it in Uganda – oba which one?) were to create an instrument for this, not only would 1,000 people invest, but possibly up to 5,000. It will not solve all the fees problems, but within a year or two, a good chunk of smart students who drop out of school because their parents can’t pony up hard cash when it is most needed, would be hovered up by the scheme.
Anyone? Call us when you are ready.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is curator of the “Wall of Great Africans” and publisher of explainer site Twitter@cobbo3