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Reforming education in Uganda

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Why government should separate financing of education in order to allow poor families access quality education

On Sunday, I attended a global education forum in Dubai. Sheik Mohammed Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, and President Paul Kagame of Rwanda were there as well as former presidents, Bill Clinton (USA), Olusegun Obasanjo (Nigeria), former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair and education ministers of several countries and cities. The main challenges were: how do we increase access to education? Is this possible without compromising quality? How can education be made affordable? What curriculum can best prepare students to face the challenges of modern life; like employment? What should be the role of governments, the private sector, parents, churches, and citizens in increasing access to education and improving its quality?

I have been involved in education for most of my life through observing my father’s obsessive interest in it. He spent a large part of his life helping in building schools, churches, and clinics. He looked at education as a tool for liberating society from the hold of tradition and its many accompanying superstitions. But my father also believed that the greatest education a child can have is not at school but at home; and is best organised by the parent, not teachers. For most of my primary and secondary education, I spent less than 20% of my time on the official school curriculum. The 80% was spent on reading books at home – reading ancient and contemporary philosophy, literature and history.


This is not to say that my father thought teachers are not important. Far from that; he believed in teachers. He was constantly encouraging his many relatives whose fees he paid to join teacher-training colleges or to study education at university. He personally educated tens of students through teacher training colleges and four of my siblings became teachers as well. However, what I learnt is that a teacher’s contribution to a child’s education is secondary; the parent’s primary.

The problem in poor countries is that many parents are illiterate and therefore have little formal education to impart on their children although they play a big role in imparting values.

States and the governments that preside over them are not generic. They vary greatly in terms of the institutional capacities, the motivations of incumbents, and in the way they relate to the societies around them. These differences mean that the world cannot develop one blueprint for education in all countries. The experience of successful nations cannot offer solutions, only lessons. The success of any education project will be a product of understanding local conditions.

I have argued before that the very specific/peculiar way the democratic process has evolved in Uganda has been injurious to the public good. In order to win votes, candidates have promised big things – like Universal Primary Education (UPE) and Universal Secondary Education (USE). But such promises, made in the heat of the campaign, have not been backed by technical considerations regarding the impact of a huge influx of students in schools without teachers, desks, books, and classrooms. The result in Uganda was increased access with rapidly declining quality. Again, I am not against access even if the cost is decline in quality. But the precipitous decline of education quality in public schools in Uganda has led to devastating consequences that limit the benefits of access. How?

The decline in the quality of education in public schools led to the exodus of well off parents to private schools. This was made possible because the liberalisation of education allowed entrepreneurial teachers and other businesspersons to open private schools in large numbers. Today, 40% of students in primary and 70% in secondary and over 90% in university are in private education institutions. The exodus of the well off parents from public schools meant that this sector lost its most articulate and influential parents, thereby robbing it of voice.

This means that those who sit in the councils of state to decide public policy on education are not adversely affected by the tragic consequences of public schools. Conversely, those who remained in public schools are children of the least articulate sections of our society without much voice in the councils of state. None of our ministers, permanent secretaries, members of parliament, directors of government bodies, top civil servants, businesspersons, civil society leaders etc. send their children to public schools – UPE and USE. The problems of public education in Uganda are therefore of an academic, not personal nature to the leaders of our country.

Consequently, children from poor families whom access was meant to help are the ones who are getting a bad education that cannot take them anywhere except keep them in perpetual poverty. Again a caveat: I have met many youths who have even completed masters degrees abroad who have told me that without UPE they would not have gone to school. One of them has written two books copies of which he has given me to take to President Yoweri Museveni, thanking him for UPE. Therefore, all has not been lost.

But there is need to reform the way education is financed and delivered in Uganda to give access meaning. At the conference, Tony Blair made an interesting observation. He said that before he took office, he thought that if a prime minister wanted some reforms implemented, he would order government and it would be done. When he became prime minister, he realised that most people in government (especially the civil service) have a vested interest in the status quo, not reform. Reform is very difficult to organise, Blair reasoned, because those tasked to carry it out are the ones who resist it.

Yet more than self-interest as the source of resistance to reform, the bigger constraint is mindset. There is a widespread belief that to finance education, the government must provide it as well. But as the experience of Uganda shows, the private sector can run schools where the government has withdrawn from owning schools, especially in urban centers.

What the government needs to do then, is to give coupons to poor parents to choose which private schools to send their children so that they can get the same quality of education as kids from well-off parents. Government should run schools only in those areas where the private sector is absent. This would allow the state to develop better inspection capacities to ensure that private schools meet set standards.

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