NCHE: Restore confidence in higher education courses

Zadok Ekimwere

What you need to know:

Without playing hide and seek or ping pong, where does the buck stop in this expiry saga: institutions of higher learning, or NCHE?

Let us stop playing with the English words. Doing so can be equated to carelessly poking a beehive nest. I don’t mean the current verbal artillery flying over the Anti-Homosexuality Law, but where a simple word like “expired” has plunged the National Council of Higher Education (NCHE) in reference to their academic programmes and the hullabaloo it has raised. For the avoidance of doubt let us consult the Oxford English dictionary to illuminate “expired.” It tells us that it means to “come to the end of the period of validity.” Examples are when a document like a visa, driving permit; tenancy agreement, and authorization period (permission) expire.

Depending on the parties and type of agreement, the period of validity (the time during which the document is allowed to operate/exist) is clearly stipulated, say one year or so. When the document expires, it is the operational time period which becomes invalid, but the contents remain intact, the same.

Where does this lead us in the matter of NCHE’s expired programmes? What exactly expired – the time period or the contents of the programmes? And should NCHE have used the now unpalatable and ‘expired’ word “expired” to red flag its more than 2,000 programmes? Certainly not.

From what has been said so far, one can conclude that NCHE shot itself in the foot when it recklessly red flagged the over 2,000 programmes (out of the 4,500), nearly 50 per cent as expired in its website. Due to unbearable heat, NCHE is now telling us that the contents of the programmes have not expired, but are due for review, meaning it is the operational periods which run out. That should have been the explanation instead of equating the programmes to medicines which expire after their stipulated life spans rendering them inefficacious to treat diseases. In human terms when a person has expired, he/she is dead. The second issue is how the knowledge of these programmes came to the Ugandan public. It had to take a UK university (Bristol) who humiliated our student and denied him admission on account of course status. If this had not happened NCHE would be comfortably sitting on its expired courses waiting for others to expire. This is a scandalous revelation and should be a rude awakening for NCHE to style up.

NCHE can do a more commendable and dignified job. Here is why. A programme accredited should be digitalized with automatic alerts calibrated against it to indicate the timeframe when it will be due for review (not expire!). A six-month alert notice would be ideal. This alert should warn all stakeholders led by NCHE to act promptly

Even with its ICT department, I still find navigating the NCHE website problematic. For instance, although the organogram page says “click on the different units to get more information,” none opens whenever I do so. And on the academic programmes page, after PhDs the list suddenly plunges to the Diploma in Journalism and Media Studies of the Global Institute of Technology and Business, Kampala. Alone, it takes up to 22 of the 4,500 rows. Yet each programme is meant to take only one row. Is this an intended mistake or an academic bonus to the Global Institute?  Students pay NCHE a mandatory 20,000 shillings annually. Given that we have over 50 higher institutions now, with thousands of students, this is a colossal amount of money for which NCHE ought to render prompt, reciprocal and desired service to its stakeholders. 

As Ugandans, we can try to massage this expiry issue and even minimize its impact as is characteristic of our Ugandanness.  But this fallout is a massive academic and public relations challenge which the NCHE may not overcome in a long time especially among universities like Bristol and others who now view its courses as expired. What effective damage control strategies is NCHE or Uganda going to employ to win back lost confidence, recognition and loyalty? Redeeming lost confidence is the real work that must be accomplished to re-establish the reputation and validity of NCHE programmes. Yet rebuilding a reputation is not a walk in the park. Intangible assets, such as academic reputation is what builds universities’ profiles and makes them soar to greater heights so that they attract patronage globally.

By the time our national regulator red flags over 2,000 academic programmes, some for as long as 10 or 15 years, then we know it is telling us it has problems in its hands. It is a strong indictment of its work habits and character. Does this look like incompetence or merely being overwhelmed with the magnitude of work?     Without playing hide and seek or ping pong, where does the buck stop in this expiry saga: institutions of higher learning, or NCHE? With all due respect, methinks NCHE as a regulator and for being reckless with the word expire.

Dr Zadok Ekimwere is a media consultant and former Head School of Journalism         and Media Management, UMI