Up to 1,200 students have been affected by a scandal whose cause is attributable either to failure to pay attention to detail, or focusing on the bank accounts, reports SULAIMAN KAKAIRE.
Last October, When Mary Goretti Asiimwe graduated with a Bach- elor of Science degree in Nursing from Uganda Christian University (UCU), Mukono, she expected it to open doors to a dream professional career.
To Asiimwe’s dismay, however, her qualifications could not even open the first door to opportunity. Months after her graduation, when the 24-year-old applied to the Uganda Nurses and Midwives Council (UNMC) for vetting before she could be certified as a nurse, her application was rejected on grounds that she did not meet the minimum qualifications.
UNMC regulates nursing and midwifery practitioners.
“When I heard that my application had been rejected, I thought that maybe I made an error in filling the forms. But when I came to Kampala to follow up the matter, I was informed that I did not meet the minimum criteria of becoming a nurse,” the resident of Jinja told The Observer.
Asiimwe would soon learn that a similar fate had befallen her 23 former classmates at UCU. The affected UCU students came together to pursue the matter with UNMC and the National Council for Higher Education (NCHE), which opened the lid on a scam that could affect at least another 1,200 students from six universities.
Correspondences between UNMC, NCHE and the students, indicate that the students were admitted for bachelor of nursing degrees at the six universities despite the fact that they did not pass chemistry and biology at the advanced level of secondary education.
In the medical profession, a doctor provides opinions, diagnosis and prescription while a nurse offers aid and physical treatment. On June 16, 2016, the registrar of UNMC, John Wakida, wrote to the executive director of NCHE, Prof John Opuda- Asibo, complaining about the growing number of cases where universities qualify students who lack the requisite academic credentials.
“There is an immense backlog of students who were admitted into nursing and midwifery training programmes in the different universities without meeting the entry requirements for admission in both biology and chemistry. The students in question have since been qualified by their respective universities and seek to be registered,” he wrote.
Prof Opuda explained that NCHE has hitherto brought the affected institutions and UNMC together in a bid to resolve the problem but with little success so far. In a letter dated August 25, 2016, which the NCHE boss sent to Isaac Ssemakadde of Centre for Legal Aid, the legal representatives of the affected UCU students, Prof. Opuda outlined the affected universities.
“Please note that the matter of bachelor of nursing science graduates who have faced challenges of registration with Uganda Nurses and Midwives Council (UNMC) affects not only Uganda Christian University graduates but those of Bishop Stuart University, International Health Sciences University and Kampala International University,” he wrote.
The deputy vice chancellor in charge of academic affairs at Kampala International University, Dr Annette Kezaabu, told The Observer on Saturday that they have since recalled degrees of students who did not have the minimum qualifications.
“We now admit only those with the required qualifications and our programme is now approved,” She said.
On his part, the proprietor of International Health Sciences University, Dr Ian Clarke, described the problem as “historical” one for which a solution is yet to be found.
“When the matter was raised, we stopped admitting students without biology and chemistry [qualifications]. But we are in talks to see that the affected students’ concerns are addressed,” he said.
PLIGHT OF AFFECTED STUDENTS
Another affected UCU student, Ivan Walukhu, 24, narrated to The Observer that around 2012, when they were in their second academic year, they started to get fillers about the uncertainty of their academic programme.
“At the time, I was a student coordinator in my class, so one day when I went to the administrator’s office, I peeped at a letter disclosing that our programme is not yet accredited,” he said.
When Walukhu and another affected classmate, Charles Katumwa, mobilised students to demonstrate over the matter, the administration reached out to them.
“They gave us assurance that we should not worry about our future, arguing that accreditation is a small thing that can be handled,” he said.
The students continued to study despite the uncertainty, until the last semester of their final year in 2015 when they started to hear from some course alumni about their futile efforts to secure certification from UNMC.
“Those who were ahead of us told us that we were on a ‘kiwani’ (fake) programme,” Asiimwe said, adding that they once again sought the intervention of the head of the UCU nursing department in vain. Instead, he says, they were threatened.
On August 6, 2015, a group of 23 students approached Centre for Legal Aid (CLA), seeking support to go to court. On the same day, CLA wrote to the Vice Chancellor of UCU.
“We understand that these students are victims of fraudulent misrepresentation by the university which admitted and collected tuition and other charges from them for four years in contravention of the criteria set by the Uganda Nurses and Midwives Council (UNMC) which is the mandated regulator for this course,” wrote Ssemakadde.
CLA threatened to sue UCU, but also advised the university to seek “an alternative remedy” that could lead to the students attaining UNMC-recognised qualifications. However, CLA complained that UCU delayed to organise a meeting with students and UNMC.
With their graduation shrouded in mystery, the students say they succumbed to pressure from UCU not to stall “a special graduation” ceremony where First Lady (and now Minister of Education) Janet Museveni was among the graduands, along with the executive director of the Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA) Allen Kagina.
Subsequently, on October 2015, UCU passed out the bachelor of nursing students, despite the uncertainties their programme was shrouded in.
Their controversial graduation forced an unknown whistleblower to seek the intervention of the Inspectorate of Government, as revealed during the NCHE’s 32nd quality departmental meeting.
The vice chancellor of UCU, Dr John Ssenyonyi, told The Observer by telephone on Saturday that the university was not at fault. He said it was in fact the UCU management which first raised the concerns regarding the course, not the students.
“The whole issue was first raised by UCU,” he said. “We are nearing conclusion of this problem. We are the ones who have been pursuing this matter with NCHE and UNMC. Once you go legal, the implications would be worse for them.”
NCHE ADMITS LAXITY
On November 16, 2015, NCHE convened a joint meeting with UNMC and leaders of the universities offering BSC nursing programmes in a bid to resolve “ issues surrounding the admission to the bachelor of nursing programme without the minimum entry requirements”.
Also in attendance were the director for Quality Assurance, Dr Pamela Tibihikira-Kalyegira; the senior Higher Education officer, Dr Cyrus Ssebugenyi, and a dozen other officials Prof Opuda explained that while institutions of higher learning are licensed by NCHE, UNMC takes the final decision with regard to the minimum entry requirements.
“The chair reiterated the role of deputy vice chancellors and deans of faculties/schools who should have taken care of this during admission of these students because entry requirements were very clear,” the minutes of the meeting say.
After reminding the meeting that UNMC would not register students that did not meet the minimum requirements, Prof Opuda urged the academic institutions to engage the students and UNMC on the matter if they are to be safe against litigation.
“It should be noted that NCHE, UNMC plus the universities were responsible although the institutions have the autonomy to decide who to admit. Institutions should be prepared to bear the costs that may be involved,” Prof Opuda said.
In the meeting, the affected universities tabled their concerns as well. UCU said it had admitted students with one principal pass in either Biology or Chemistry and some of them had graduated.
“They had one student who had neither Biology nor Chemistry. They needed guidance as to how to handle [the situation] given the fact that they do not have diploma programmes at their main campus,” the minutes say.
The meeting advised UCU to dismiss students without biology or chemistry or admit them to certificate programme if they qualify and as regards to graduates they should be admitted to a diploma program that must be designed by UCU’s senate.
“They were reminded that although it was an inconvenience to students they would benefit because they would graduate with two qualifications i.e. a diploma and a degree,” the minutes read.
CONFLICT OF INTEREST
With UCU taking no action since that November 2015 meeting, in June 2016 the students returned to their lawyer Ssemakadde to resuscitate their case. On June 14, Ssemakadde wrote to UNMC, seeking to know why they had refused to approve the affected students.
Two weeks later, Ssemakadde met the legal affairs officer at UNMC, Edith Nalunkuma, who advised the lawyer to pursue the issue with NCHE. On July 5, Prof Opuda advised that the matter should be followed up in accordance with the joint meeting held at NCHE in November 16, 2015.
“It was agreed that the senate of each university convenes, proposes, and engages the UNMC for a resolution and revert to NCHE with agreed positions,” reads his letter.
However, with Ssemakadde complaining that Prof Opuda had reneged on his earlier guidance, CLA opted to go to court. Consequently, Ssemakadde asked NCHE in a July 18, 2016 letter to avail him with “accreditation certificates for the entire duration, minimum entry requirements for admission to this programme as set by the National Council and the updated register and contests of the accredited nursing course.”
Following a slow response from NCHE, Ssemakadde wrote to NHCE’s director for Quality Assurance and Accreditation, Dr Pamela Tibihikira-Kalyegira, on August 23, 2016, complaining about NCHE’s conflict of interest in the matter.
Ssemakadde revealed that the UCU Vice chancellor Dr John Ssenyonyi, is more than an ordinary member of the NCHE; he chairs two committees of the NCHE (the Quality and Accreditation Committee and the Audit and Risk Management Committee). In addition, he said, Tibihikira- Kalyegira was until recently an employee at UCU as dean of the faculty of law.
Subsequently, NCHE invited Ssemakadde for a meeting where, he said, they assured him that there was no conflict of interest. Dr Senyonyi, however, explained that in cases where matters involving UCU came up for discussion at NCHE, he would step aside as chair.
On Saturday, Prof Opuda acknowledged that there was a problem with the constitution of the NCHE administrative structure.
“We have a problem because the university and other tertiary institutions Act provides that vice chancellors are members of the council, by virtue of which they can be appointed to chair some committees. This affects our independence at times. But we have to take that Act back to Parliament so that that concern is addressed,” he said.
As CLA pursues justice on behalf of the UCU students, one of them, Asiimwe, told The Observer last week that her dreams are in limbo.
“My family thinks I am a disappointment. They keep on blasting me why I did not pass my senior six,” said Asiimwe, who has now taken up a sales job in Jinja town to survive.
To fund her education at UCU, Asiimwe says they had to pass a begging bowl around to family, friends and well wishers.
“I remember we went to Hon Daudi Migereko the former minister for Lands to get help. We begged people; I applied for scholarship but only managed to get a scholarship from Madhvani Foundation in my second year. Even then it was Shs 1.5 million and yet we had to pay Shs 3 million shillings. How will I go through the trauma again?” she asked.
Katumwa, too, is frustrated. “You can’t do anything if you are not licensed,” he said. “You cannot go for further studies. Everything seems uncertain. Our families expect much from us but we are still depending on them. Life is hard.”
Walukhu says their only hope lies in the legal process. “We need justice,” he said. “We have lost money and time because someone was just thinking about money and the regulator never cared even when students contribute to the funding of NCHE.”
This article is a product of The Watchdog, a centre for investigative journalism at The Observer.