Uganda’s education system is no longer fit for purpose

Sunday February 09 2020

Each January and February, Uganda National Examinations Board (Uneb) releases national exam results to the excitement and (sometimes) anxiety of pupils/students and parents.
Newspapers give the results saturation coverage, with reporters reaching out to star performers for news interviews and photos, which are splashed across many pages.

For newspapers, exam results are a real bonanza. They provide an opportunity to increase sales as schools, students and parents often scramble to buy the papers.
The best students and schools wax lyrical about what enabled them to perform well, sometimes giving credit to prayer and God, although many people who think for themselves know perfectly well that the quality of teaching and the effort the students put in are all you need to secure academic excellence.
The excitement about exam results has become a tradition, and we have lived with it for decades. But we rarely pause to ask whether our education system is still fit for purpose.

Does our education system give us professionals that our country needs and can rely on to solve its problems and foster economic development? How can we have civil engineers, some with first-class degrees, but they cannot construct our roads, and we have to hire the Chinese or Europeans to do the job?
Shouldn’t the government of Uganda, or the Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA) for that matter, simply buy road construction equipment and rely on those students who score good grades and go on to study civil engineering to do the job?
It is profoundly perplexing that Ugandan-trained civil engineers have a hard time building decent roads, dams, bridges and all the rest of it, but Ugandan-trained medical doctors can treat patients in Uganda and other countries.

Of course, Uganda does not rely on foreigners to do everything. Some brilliant students have gone on to do great things in their professional lives and for the country. But hard questions about our education system—such as those raised already—need to be addressed urgently.
Many of us think that top grades and degree certificates, as opposed to skills, are the be-all and end-all of education. We admire and praise pupils/students who have aced PLE, UCE and UACE exams and conclude they are geniuses who will solve the country’s knottiest problems.

However, education that is propelling countries forward equips students with real skills, and we do not seem to have enough of that. A good education system should also anticipate society’s needs and map plans that can help society adequately deal with those needs and challenges.
Before I wrote this article, I took trouble to look at what we call past papers in Uganda. These are exam papers that have been done in years gone by.
Ugandan primary schools teach four subjects: English, Mathematics, Science and Social Studies. I looked at one paper (Social Studies) from 2018 and I saw the following questions: a) Name any two minerals mined in South Africa and b) State any two economic benefits of the mining industry to South Africa.

While it is good for pupils/students to have a good general knowledge, it is hard to see what a pupil who gets these kinds of questions right is gaining in terms of knowledge and skills.
Being informed is not the same thing as having skills. A modestly educated man or a woman who can produce high-quality videos, for example, has far higher chances of being gainfully employed than someone who knows everything about Uganda’s or South Africa’s minerals.


You may know what every country in Africa and the world produces for export, but that does not mean you have skills. No one can employ you just because you have an encyclopaedic head.
Uganda, it seems to me, needs a complete overhaul of its education system. The overhaul should take into consideration subjects that help students deal with the challenges of the 21st Century. Social Studies, for example, should be replaced with basic computer education, which is not necessarily computer science.

Pupils sitting for PLE should be able to use email, Excel and other applications. And performance should not be about results from exams sat for two days after seven years of study. A pupil’s academic performance should incorporate results from P1 up to P7.
At Ordinary and Advanced Levels, the number of subjects should be reduced and irrelevant subjects scrapped. You do not need CRE, Divinity and Entrepreneurship. History may be a good subject, but technology is going to make historians irrelevant.
Reforms in our education system should also ensure that teachers get paid like politicians in order to attract brilliant minds. We just cannot have quality education when we pay teachers starvation wages.

The writer is a journalist and former Al Jazeera digital editor in charge of the Africa desk
[email protected]