When the Academic Registrar of Kabale University invited applications for the Kabale University Kigezi Region Scholarship, he probably did not expect that it would provoke the ire of some Ugandans. However, that is exactly what it did.
The offending part of the announcement was the requirement that applicants must be Ugandans from one of the six districts of Kigyezi. This is an understandable reaction given that this is a public university, subject to the provisions of the amended Universities and Other Tertiary Institutions Act, 2001.
Article 24(1b) of the Act provides that one of the objects and functions of a public university is “dissemination of knowledge and giving opportunity of acquiring higher education to all persons” regardless of labels. Article 28(1) provides that admission to a Public University “shall be open to all qualified citizens of Uganda and without discrimination.” Kabale University’s ring-fencing of scholarships for a specified region of Uganda would appear to go counter to these provisions.
However, the Universities Act, anticipating the realities of economic and other disparities, also provided under Article 28(3) that the “Admission Committee of a Public University shall take into consideration affirmative action in favour of marginalised groups on the basis of gender, disability and disadvantaged schools.”
It is under this provision of the Act that Kabale University has legally continued a noble and necessary practice that dates to its founding as a private institution in 2002. Right from its early days, the university selected two students (one male and one female) from each district in Kigyezi region for study under the scholarship.
The purpose of the scholarship was to provide equity of access to higher education for students from rural schools in Kigezi who were partly handicapped by family poverty. Even when Kabale University was established, very many intellectually able students could not easily enter or complete its academic programmes. Over 30 percent would drop out due to failure to pay tuition fees, despite the charges being among the lowest among Ugandan universities. A few parents only managed to educate their children by selling their scarce land.
Equally challenging was the perennially poor performance of rural school students at O-Level and A-Level examinations, which precluded successful competition for admission into most programmes at Kabale University. Their suboptimal scores were not necessarily a reflection of their intellectual abilities. Many bright students underperformed because of poor learning resources. Given the right opportunities, they excelled.
This is not news. It has been the experience of many since the introduction of formal western education in Uganda over a century ago. The main reason why well-established traditional schools dominated the top ranks of examination results for decades was because they were very well resourced to provide the best learning environments and opportunities.
The plethora of well-resourced private secondary schools, most of them in the urban areas, has widened the competitive rural-urban gap in favour of the students from schools in Uganda’s cities and towns. A bright student at Kahondo Secondary School in Maziba Subcounty, Kigyezi, is statistically less likely to score higher marks than a less intellectually able student at Kigezi High School or Busoga College, Mwiri.
It is a classic example of Matthew 13:12 where Jesus said: “For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” The poverty in rural Kigyezi needs to be seen to be appreciated by those, mostly in urban centres and abroad, who seek to take away Kabale University’s modest effort to address the needs of our disadvantaged compatriots.
Three points need emphasis. First, the underdevelopment, poverty, and service resource-deficit in Kigezi demands extraordinary measures to correct. The first-time visitor from Kampala or abroad would be shocked by the socio-economic challenges of rural Kigezi, including its schools. The developmental imbalance relegates rural communities to second-class citizenship.
Second, the Kabale University Scholarship is only available to students who have attended secondary schools in their home districts within Kigezi region. A student from Rukiga District who has attended secondary school in, say, Kabale or Wakiso Districts is ineligible for consideration.
Third, to obtain the scholarship, the student must have the academic qualifications for admission to their desired program. It is a scholarship to assist the intellectually able but poor student.
In establishing academic programmes, Kabale University considers the Government of Uganda’s prioritization of science disciplines and emphasises relevance to the community. “Kabale University Council saw it right to institute a strategy to attract a small cohort of students who could be trained and, hopefully, stay and work in our institutions to improve service to the community,” Prof. Joy Kwesiga, the university’s vice chancellor, told me.
This was in keeping with an earlier government strategy in the 1970s and 1980s, where, for example, Bukalasa Agricultural College considered regional balance to get extension workers who could willingly be posted and stay in rural areas. This was after admission on merit basis alone could not solve the problem of postings to hard-to-reach areas.
The Kabale University scholarship is limited to tuition fees. Other expenses such as accommodation, guild fees and health costs are based on a cost sharing concept.
In effect, the university foregoes the tuition fee income.
“The University Council debated the implications of continuing with the scholarship scheme,” Prof. Kwesiga told me. “It was thought right to keep it during this transition from private to full public university status and to review it from time to time.”
I hope that Kabale University will maintain and even expand this scholarship program. Other public universities in Uganda should consider similar initiatives. The economic divide between the haves and have nots invites us to offer a hand-up to hard-working and able students who are disadvantaged by circumstances. Affirmative action has been repeatedly shown to work.
Funding the scholarship should be the patriotic duty of Banyakigyezi and friends of Kigezi who have a long-term view of development akin to that which the colonial and early post-colonial leaders had. Kabale University’s leaders should consider engaging Banyakigyezi in a conversation about strategies for creating a sustainable scholarship programme.
Obviously, enhancing the quality of rural schools, along with overall economic means of rural populations must remain key measures in addressing the gap. Hopefully a time will come when such a scholarship scheme will no longer be needed. It may take a few generations to accomplish that.
Mulera is a medical doctor