Students from Uganda’s oldest public university, Makerere, resolved to peacefully protest against a 15 per cent cumulative tuition increment by petitioning the speaker of parliament.
Security, inhumanly, responded by arresting dozens of students on top of raiding residence halls at night, beating residents and damaging students’ properties. The university administration followed suit by suspending students. Journalists and students with disabilities sustained injuries!
Makerere administrators claimed the strike was not political whereas police and the minister of Education and Sports Janet Museveni, accused striking students of being “corrupt.”
Certainly, the strike was political because education itself is a political matter. Poverty is a miserable existence and economic inequality translates into unequal social status and power.
It’s because of politics that those with positions of power always inform us of unavailability of funds to adequately finance public education at all levels. Yet there is enough to fund education for children belonging to politically-connected and rich families.
The suppression of freedom of expression through the use of disproportionate coercive arms of state against helpless students only affirms Makerere administration’s point - the politics involved in education.
Recognizing numerous strikes at Makerere before and methods of quelling them, I wonder why the violence against students. It speaks to insensitivity, self-importance on the part of leadership, which deliberately chose to concentrate on defending tuition increment in total disregard of the cause of the crisis.
In the 1990s, government allowed private sponsorship of students at Makerere University. Liberalization increased enrollments by 12 per cent between 1994 and 1999 and it’s estimated that enrollments rose by 92 per cent between 2008 and 2015. Today, Makerere has more than 35,000 students, of whom about 2,000 are government-sponsored.
The outstanding challenge is about the selection criterion of beneficiaries. Ordinarily, government sponsorship would be of immense importance to the needy students, but often those able to enjoy taxpayers’ money in billions, even on State House scholarships, are the affluent ones who could otherwise afford to pay tuition.
The current model of funding the entire education sector disadvantages the poor, females and people from peripheral areas. This inequality in access to education is wrong and entrenches the painful vicious cycle of classification of Ugandans based on their economic backgrounds.
Once upon a time, almost all children in Uganda were assured of unrestricted unlocking of potential because they were guaranteed of free, quality education without their parents’ worry of colossal sums to pay fees and assorted requirements.
It was this kind of provision that created opportunities for many people. Gone are those days. Today, millions of children are punished for being poor. They are either forced into the ineffective Universal Primary Education and Universal Secondary Education, or locked out of classrooms because their parents cannot afford fees since UPE and USE are not completely free.
When government introduced those free education schemes, Ugandans - especially the poor - felt greatly fortified, thinking it was restoration of lost glory. Little did they know, the quality of free education had significantly diluted this time.
The majority of children going to government schools, especially in rural areas, have no choice but to study on empty stomachs and without adequate reading materials. Some have to endure harsh experiences of attaining education under shades of trees.
It’s from rural areas where girls’ dropout rates are high; where they lack sanitary pads during menstruation cycle. However, in Uganda, the affluent have a choice: they can pay for their children to attend expensive private schools.
Despite the increase in enrollment levels, Uganda’s education system today produces half-backed UPE and USE students and super products of for-profit private primary and secondary schools.
There is need for changes, particularly in curriculum, to have one which is more relevant in helping students discover and nurture their talents and interests early, other than the existing one which encourages dependency, thriving on memorization instead of developing critical thinkers with skills to become self-reliant.
If past governments offered free, quality education to elders, Uganda today, whose resource envelope progressively grows, is in a much better position to develop a fairer education system to better prepare the children for the future.
The writer is a programs manager @equalitynow_ug and co-coordinator, Fight Inequality Alliance Uganda.