“Expired degrees” debacle is latest episode in the bewildering series that is Uganda

Author, Benjamin Rukwengye. PHOTO/FILE. 

What you need to know:

There are a myriad of reasons why but an often understated one is that many Ugandan students at any level can only endure the dysfunction of the country’s education for the one time when they have no means to escape it.

Just a year after I had graduated from Makerere University, I enrolled in a Master’s program at the same university. We were a class of about 25 students who would show up almost every evening tired from work, to put in a few more hours of study in the hope that it would give us the added advantage in the brutal carousel that is capitalism.

It was all good – whatever that means in this instance - until towards the end when one is required to decide how they want to go about the final project/semester. The course offered two choices. Plan A was that you could sit out that extra semester and the classroom commitments and instead “go to the field” and conduct research that would result in the submission of a dissertation. Plan B, however, gave one the option of studying an extra semester which came with 3 more course units – and their exams – on top of writing and submitting a research paper.

Whichever option you took however would result in graduation. Only about seven of us made it to the graduation list. All the others who had opted for Plan A didn’t graduate despite doing everything that was required of them.

The policy is that every student undertaking that route must be assigned a supervisor to oversee and guide them through the process. The supervisor must be paid by the university as compensation for this extra workload. The students, as part of their tuition in fact pay a particular fee for this service. It is that money that should have been remitted to the supervisors but the university hadn’t paid it out – which means it could not assign supervisors to the students.

So now you had all these students who had paid their fees – including the supervisors’ fees – undertaken and completed their research, but were unable to graduate because the institution had somehow mis/re-allocated that money to whatever else they thought was more important.

I am not sure if this was the case for other courses but it would take another two years of pleading, threatening legal action, lobbying the Speaker of Parliament and the Prime Minister, and waiting and praying before the debacle was sorted and the students were able to graduate.

This is, by the way, supposed to be the best university in the land. There is a reason why when you look at the academic qualifications of most teaching and administrative staff of nearly every university in Uganda, you notice a peculiar pattern. Almost all of them did their undergrad degrees here but only a handful undertake their postgrad studies in Uganda.

There are a myriad of reasons why but an often understated one is that many Ugandan students at any level can only endure the dysfunction of the country’s education for the one time when they have no means to escape it. The moment the option to leave is availed, they bolt. It is also not a mystery why, when they return and take up work as faculty or administrators, they are unable to transfer the efficiency gleaned and experienced from their sojourns abroad.

The simple answer has to do with this being Uganda and the Kakistocracy context this column alluded to last week. It is hard to expect and build excellent and efficient processes that thrive, in systems that are dysfunctional and often bloated with people who are incompetent and unaccountable. And because there is an overabundance of that everyone somehow always functions in crisis and ad-hoc mode. Also, no one is ever really immune from it.

So, you have instances where teachers and doctors and public servants don’t show up at their duty stations or give less than the bare minimum but nothing happens because those who should call them to order are in over their heads or up to everything else but their responsibility. It is therefore not hard to imagine that this “expired degrees” debacle would happen in a country like Uganda. Or that the debate and discourse around it would be as pedestrian as has been. More often than not, Uganda feels like that last scene in the movie Titanic, where water and hell have broken loose and everyone is scrambling for safety to nowhere; yet there is an uncanny calmness from the orchestra playing Nearer My God to Thee. Ours can be found in the humor, alcohol and overnights that litter every aspect of our lives.

Mr Rukwengye is the founder, Boundless Minds.