Why Uganda’s “free” Education is a sociological time bomb

Our ‘Bantustan’ Education will come back to haunt us

One of the worst indignities of apartheid in South Africa was the policy of ‘Separate Development’. The policy served as a structural solution for apartheid’s planners who wanted to turn South Africa into a white republic in which blacks did not feature as citizens. Also known as the “Bantustan” policy, it sought to assign every black African to a “homeland” according to their ethnic identity. The racist government also developed separate services for these areas which were inferior to those provided to whites. No aspect of this ‘development’ was more pathetic than education.

The Bantu (black) Education act of 1953, a pillar of the apartheid project, was intended to separate black South Africans from the main, comparatively very well-resourced education facilities available for white South Africans.

The impact of this inferior education was later to haunt the apartheid regime. The Bantustans were awash with ill-educated, unemployed and unemployable youth who formed the core of many revolution struggles including Mandela’s. The famous 1976 Soweto uprising was led by the products of this education, who protested the addition of another insult into the system, that of making it mandatory for all south African black students to study in Afrikaans, the language of the oppressor.

Which brings me to Uganda’s own Universal Primary Education, and its cousin, the Universal Secondary Education. Heralded as a landmark policy when it was instituted in 1996, UPE is now largely regarded as a poor man’s education where 7 years of schooling are producing children who can barely read or write. Report after report shows that Uganda lags behind in the East African region with pupils having abysmal pass rates on simple arithmetic and reading tests compared to other East African countries. Dropout rates are to the tune of 70% in some districts, undermining the mass enrollment success the programme started with nearly 20 years ago. Many kids, after 7 years of primary school can neither read nor write, or count.

Many Parents in Uganda have no use for UPE anymore. No one who can afford private education will take their child to a government one. Government officials including the very architects of UPE would never subject their children to this inferior education. Isn’t it ironic that the time Government introduced free education was the same time the private school industry soared? When I started primary school in 1989 in Kisoro, there was no single private school in the whole subdistrict! Now private education is thriving in this tiny, largely poor district. Even those with no resources try their best, spending an arm and a leg to avoid sending their children to UPE and USE schools. Only the chronically poor send their kids for this “free” education.

Which brings me to the long term consequences of the brooding inequality these parallel systems of education are inadvertently creating. Most UPE students have very little chance of going far in school. Most will therefore not graduate from high school and university. They will be disadvantaged in employment and therefore their chances of succeeding in life are being nipped in the bud long before they understand what happened to them. And this will create social discontent and ultimately, unrest.

It is the same predicament facing African Americans in the United States. While there was some tolerance for slave education among certain groups in the South during slavery, Education for slaves was largely forbidden, even after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation that ended slavery in the United States in 1863. The landmark 1954 Brown Vs The board of Education ruling in which the supreme court ended segregation in schools did not help a great deal. Most blacks could only attend segregated, black only schools which were inferior, poorly resourced and immensely disadvantaged.

The legacy of this historic wrong still haunts America today. Most blacks still attend very poorly resourced, poorly financed public schools and dropout rates are very high. The achievement gap between black and white students is wide. Partly as a result of this, Poverty and unemployment are higher among black households compared to white ones. The consequences of these inequalities are dire: Most crimes in US are committed by black men and there are more black men in prison in America than there are in college. Over 70 percent of babies are born in fatherless households and disease burden and other social ills are higher for blacks. These sociological issues are taking a toll on the US economy as all these people must be taken care of. The welfare state has been expanding overtime as government tries to provide a social safety net for these people. An inferior education didn’t of course cause all these problems. But given the role of education in upward mobility and the ability of a person to have a better shot at life, its impact can’t be underestimated.

Our failing public education system should awaken all the stakeholders to take action if we are to avoid future social catastrophes. We must make sure that conditions in Government schools are at least as good as those in private ones; that teachers are remunerated better and that better physical and academic infrastructures and resources for a conducive learning environment are in place. This requires overall increase in resource investments in education but it is not just about money. It is also about better management practices, supervision, and taking responsibility by all stakeholders. That way we may, just may, avoid the silently bulging problem of inequality in education which sooner or later will come back to haunt us.

So far, I haven’t heard of any presidential candidate with a plan to fix this

Happy New Year!


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