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To keep or end 1.5 free points for varsity girls?

By Asio Rafealla & Mubatsi A. Habati

Makerere grapples with contradiction of more girls joining university but more boys graduate at end of course

In 1990, government introduced affirmative action of 1.5 extra points for all female students joining public universities. Since then the number of female students in public universities has risen. Makerere University alone experienced a rise of 25% girls enrollment in 1990 to 46% in 2008.

But after 19 years of implementing the policy, Makerere administrators are calling for its review and probably complete scrapping reasoning that it has achieved its goals. Observers argue that the policy seems to be working against male students and are warning that in future there might be need to adopt a similar policy for them if the 1.5 points policy is not revised.

Women activists, on the other hand, are arguing it should be given more time and that scrapping it would be like suffocating a toddler.

The girl child in society today is still being underlooked, said Hellen who refused to disclose her second name, but works with the Academic Registrars office; adding that: We may have managed to get girls into Makerere to do various courses for example Law which has become a popular course with many young females, but the challenge still lies in getting these girls to complete higher education and fit into the employment circles without feeling intimidated, which was the initiative for having so many girls into university such that they could attain professions that could compete favourably with the boys.

The University Senate is yet to decide if the affirmative action has outlived its purpose or has worked against the male students. But admissions to courses like law, information technology (IT) and education with arts in the last three academic years shows the imbalance brought about is high. A critical analysis shows the imbalance is manifesting in humanities with the exception of science related courses.

Science related courses are usually termed as abstract and the girls from as far back as early secondary school do not relate very well with abstract subjects which is why the intake in science related courses for girls is still low thus the affirmative action has not made great achievement in the science field, says Gilbert Kadilo, Makerere Universitys spokesperson.

For example, the 2006/07 admission list for Bsc. Architecture has three girls out of the 11 students admitted to the course. In the 2009/10 government admissions for Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Engineering, only a girl was admitted out of 19 students admitted for the course. Eleven of the 49 students admitted for Bachelor of Science in Agriculture were females while Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery had only 12 girls out of the 57 students admitted. With regard to humanities, only three male students were admitted for Bachelor of Industrial and Organisation Psychology out of the 20 students admitted in the 2009/10 academic year. Of the 54 government sponsored students for Bachelor of Laws, only six are males.

Prof. Joy Kwesiga, one of the architects of affirmative action and a women’s activist, says there is nowhere in the world where affirmative action has been popular. “Records show that the awarding of 1.5 points has been making a positive impact on girls joining the university. Those criticizing it are using statistics out of context because more girls are admitted on humanity courses than those admitted on science courses. It shows a reflection of where girls are,” Prof. Kwesiga said.

She adds that most of those girls making it on government merit sponsorship after getting 1.5 additional points have gone through good schools having done arts subjects. Yet the government scheme of sponsoring 70% students doing science related courses at public universities, does not greatly benefit female students.

Like Prof. Joy Kwesiga, Hellen too believes the majority of  girls are still out there receiving little or no help with their higher education. She outrightly believes that the 1.5 points should be maintained for the Arts and two extra points should be awarded for the science courses such that a parity of gender can be achieved where a bigger proportion of public money concerning higher education is spent.

In 2007/08 academic year, 83 girls were admitted for Bachelor of Mass Communication out of the 138 students admitted. Of the 1,415 students admitted on Bachelor of Information and Technology in the 2005/6 academic year, 641 were female while 224 were admitted for bachelor of laws in 2004/5 out of the total of 448. However, graduation records indicate that while a bigger number of girls join Makerere fewer girls graduate.

“It seems girls tend to feel like the shackles on their freedom have been dropped during their first year at the university. And so by the time they get up, the boys are academically ahead which also contributes to the inconsistency with graduation numbers of girls from most of these Arts faculties. The boys are passed more than the girls when the number of admission is considered,” Kadilo said.

In February 2008 Bachelor of Laws had 186 male and 144 female students graduating compared to the 448 students admitted in 2004/05. The inconsistent numbers at the time of graduation can partly be explained by factors like many girls complain of being sexually harassed by their lecturers, which is why the sexual harassment policy was enacted in 2006. Yet others find it hard to balance work and studies which also affects their performance. At the end of the course, amidst trying to fit into life and making a future, the girls end up losing more than the boys.

Vincent Ekwanga, deputy academic registrar, Makerere University, says if there were specific numbers of students admitted in some faculties, there would be very few cases of 90% “girl-clogged” classes. He adds that lecturers in some of these faculties claim classes are very large and boring since there is less challenge between the boys and girls during debates.

The 2007/08 Admissions for bachelor of Bachelor of Library and Information Science show that 118 were girls against 67 males while the whole School of Library and Information Science had 210 female students out of the total of 326 students in the whole academic year. In the Faculty of Arts alone, of its 2007/2008 academic year population of 1842, the number of female students is 1030. A sharp contrast is brought in by the Faculty of Agriculture where only 98 out of the 330 students are girls in 2007/08. Another example is the School of Education where 608 male students were doing Bachelor of Science with Education against 42 girls compared to the 808 girls doing Bachelor of Arts with education against 209 boys in the 2007/08 academic year.

Prof. Kwesiga says the proposal to remove the 1.5 points should be delayed and first ensured that all secondary schools are well equipped to teach female students.  “Without the 1.5 points affirmative action fewer girls would be joining Makerere than they are. So there is need to improve science teaching in secondary schools by providing all laboratory and library facilities and then review the policy when each one has equal opportunities to study and join university.” She notes that this will work out if more girls are encouraged to do science subjects at high school level.

She, however, mentions that the 1.5 points policy is a blanket policy for it treats all girls as having the same education standards. It ignores the fact that these students go to well and poorly facilitated schools. Those from good schools stand to benefit better than their counterparts from bad schools with or without the affirmative action.

Kadilo, too, believes that the seeming mismatch between the numbers of girls at the university, especially those offering arts courses, and the boys starts right from high school. He says there should be enough career guidance offered especially to the girls so that right from the word go, they are aware of what they are headed for. This will minimise cases where students drop out of the course in third year or fail to graduate due to poor marks.

In the meantime, the debate continues. And for the pro-affirmative action, they have chosen to up the bargain by demanding an increase from 1.5 to 2 points for the girls applying to do science courses at university so that if they cant get the increment, then they should keep the status quo.

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