Citizens’ concerns should drive education reforms

Tuesday May 18 2021
comm02pix

By Guest Writer

After news filtered in last week that a new eight-member  Education Review Commission headed by Nuwe Amanya-Mushega had been set up by the Education and sports minister, observers of Uganda’s education reform trajectory are debating what this portends. 

The minster’s observation that in various respects, the previous foundations for education policy planning had become outdated seems valid. It is important to get the premises, issues and methods right this time round, and this is an opportunity that the country should grab  for  the desired fundamental shift in policy.

Over the years, most education reforms have been driven by politics and not technical considerations in primary, secondary, vocational education and, even in the higher education sub-sector. While well-intentioned, and occasionally consistent with broader goals of EFA and SDGS, their success at best can only be rated modest.

Access and classroom indicators may have improved, but questions about the relevance of various curricula to societal needs, public funding (capitations) and its alignment with real economy, parent/ stakeholder involvement, standards, enforcement, and quality of regulation and assessment still persist. 

The big elephant in the room is that decisions are made by politicians, who, themselves have little or no expertise as educators. Studies by organisations like Uwezo  have previously shown rampant schooling ( a good thing), with little or no learning. 

Over 68 per cent of children enrolled in public primary schools are likely to drop out before completion and teacher absenteeism is at 58 per cent. Innovations like the thematic curriculum largely remain underfunded.  Reforms need to go beyond plain proposals to address issues of incentives structures for teaching and learning in all categories.

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This review process is an opportunity to thoroughly examine previously ignored  angles of the problem in Uganda’s education sector; the funding challenge, expensive services, neglect of mother tongue, challenges associated with brain drain, continued mass illiteracy inspite of improved indicators overtime, wastage, preponderance of generalist education over STEM, failure to prioritise early Learning and Childhood Development(ECD), the collapse of PTAs, an unimaginative and poorly funded  teacher skilling system , a decline in participatory school management, unbalanced distribution of opportunity especially to hard to reach areas, and role duplication among a plethora of  education standards agencies.

Uganda’s education planning seems to have heightened inequality. Today, public servants who wouldn’t send their child to a Universal Primary Education primary school, expect the citizen to. 

Most infrastructural developments touted do in fact belong to private sector establishments and are hardly accessible to a common Ugandan citizen. 

And at higher education level, the governing law is lopsided in as far as it seeks to regulate private players rigorously while leaving public institutions to their own devices. 

Beyond the skewed law, such regulation is premised on wrong assumptions. The time when government universities were uncontested bastions of good practice may have long passed. Guidelines that place regulators and regulated public institutions reporting relationship at same level (The minister) need to be reviewed because they create handicaps of overlaps, low confidence in agencies, conflict of interest, and politicking, in otherwise supposed technical institutions and agencies. 

The Rwendeire Visitation report (2016) has in part, addressed itself to some of these challenges.

Some Departments and Agencies (DAs) have been left with unchecked liberty to review their regulations. 

This is much abused. An agency requiring a change in operational laws should not unilaterally send proposals to Parliament. There is need to bring back the Law Reform Commission to its rightful place.  

The Learned Solicitor General’s chambers may have digressed in mandate from legal advice, contracting and civil litigation to supporting departmental law reform. Weak controls have led to agency Heads hijacking institutions for personal reasons, rendering them ‘lame-ducks’, incapable of superintending over any meaningful agenda.

 The unfettered hand of the minister in appointing agency heads has led to candidates that did not pass selection interviews routinely appointed to head these same departments and agencies. Cronyism has led to ‘self-selection’ with its negative results.

In view of the performance of past reforms, the ministry should engage a broad spectrum of stakeholders and should not be a closed door event between the presidency and the Ministry of Education.

 I would suggest that the terms of reference for this commission should have been made public through leading media. A structured system for contributions by citizens and interested civil society coalitions should be put in place and matters debated publicly. 

The country can no longer afford a situation where a small ‘elite’ monopolises education reform debate, risking the possibility of ending up with a framework that is neither owned nor appropriate to rapid changing needs of society.

Innocent-Nkwasiibwe is CEO at Tripartite Initiative for Resource Governance in Africa. 

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