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Why the big number of first class degrees at Makerere?

By Mubatsi Asinja Habati

Two weeks ago Makerere University held its 60th graduation ceremony in which some 13,766 students graduated in various disciplines with different degrees. One thing that got many people talking is the high number of first class degrees doled out at this graduation ceremony – 220 in all.

Why so many, they asked? Do we have brighter students today than in the past? What has changed at Makerere?  Some claim the big number of better grades at the university does not tally with the skills exhibited by students graduating from the education institution. They accuse the University of shifting focus from producing people who positively impact society to merely ensuring that graduates get better paper grades.

The first class degrees galore came amidst accusations that academic standards at Makerere were falling. However, the Acting Vice Chancellor of Makerere University, Prof Venansius Baryameureeba, says the first class degrees are not that many. Considering the 140 courses we offer, this is not a big number, he said at the Jan.20 graduation ceremony.

The number of first class degrees has been increasing with the increase in students enrollment and graduates. The university has also increased many new courses. Makerere had only 2,581 students in 1970, 4,045 in 1980, 16,042 in 1999, and 31,302 in 2005 and about 36,000 in 2009. Students graduating have shot up from 9,369 in 1995 when the private scholarship scheme started to 12,346 who graduated in 2009. The 2009 number is almost double the 2008 figure of 5,548 graduates.  The privatization scheme appears to be at the heart of everything at Makerere from the big numbers of graduating students to the high number of first class degrees.

In the 56th and 57th graduation ceremony of 2007, Makerere had 93 first class degrees out of the 6,418 students that graduated that year.

In 2008, during the 58th graduation ceremony Makerere had 46 students graduating with first class degrees out of the 5,548 students who graduated. Only six of the first class degree graduates were doing science related courses. At the 59th graduation in 2009 there were 180 first class degrees out of the 12,346 graduating students.

At the 59th graduation ceremony, Prof Livingstone Luboobi who was the vice chancellor commented on the number of first class degree achieved that year. He said: A total of 180 of the graduands this week have attained First Class degrees and I would like us all to commend them on their achievement. Last year we had 58 First Class degrees. This brings to mind the old joke that either the examinations were easy or the students are becoming cleverer or both. Whichever of these, I certainly commend them on their achievement.

Makerere Universitys spokesperson Gilbert Kadilo defends the increasing good grades.

The university has never compromised its standards of students academic assessment and besides there is no way I can deny a student who deserves a first class degree for fear of numbers, he said. He says increased enrollment has also led to an increase in all other categories of degrees.

In terms of new courses, before 2004 the Faculty of Computing and Information Technology (CIT) at Makerere was a tiny institute. It has since grown to award degrees in at least five courses and is producing a significant number of first class degrees. In its 60th graduation ceremony Information technology, a course taught in the CIT faculty, had the highest number of top performers with 37 first-class degrees, followed by commerce (15), procurement and supply chain management (14) and community psychology (10). Many of these are relatively newly introduced courses at the university.

Amos Zikusooka was the first student at Makerere’s Department of Mass Communication to get a first class degree when he graduated in 2003.

He says: the university and face of education have changed drastically since the introduction of private scheme.

People who got first class degrees a few years ago are all serious people doing productive things and transforming societies where they are compared to those who get them now, he says, How can one get first class and look for a job or even fail to find a job?

According to him, although there are many brilliant private students, the quality of education offered at Makerere University has declined. He blames it on the big number of students, many of whom work and have very little time to read.

There is a general decline in the quality of education, not just because of the private scheme but also because of UPE and too much emphasis on passing at lower classes, he says.

He says, however, new technologies like the Internet make reading easy and for any serious student to pass.

Ivan M. Mukisa got his first class degree six years ago in Food Science and Technology. He is now a PhD student and lecturer at Makerere’s Department of Food Science and Technology. Mukisa sees the surge in first class degrees as result of the better grades at the lower levels.

Just like the numbers of As are at A level. If performance is improving at the lower levels then it should follow through even at the higher levels, he says.  He, however, asks whether it is the very same triple A students getting the first class degrees.

Mukisa says people who studied under the Term System, which ended around the late 90s; believe that the Semester System favours improved performance. They say the term students had end of year exams, which covered the syllabus of the entire year. Semester students, on the other hand, only do end of semester exams. In essence, therefore, a semester student has a smaller load of work to go through while preparing for their exams compared to the term student.

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