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Create more Ugandan technical colleges, not universities.

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Create more Ugandan technical colleges, not universities.

Uganda is said to have about 61 degree-awarding institutions. Thirteen are public institutions, forty are private, and eight are narrowly focused, either on military or oil sciences. All of them are called universities, although many probably do not deserve that designation. Whereas there are no internationally accepted uniform criteria for designation as a university, creating an institution of higher learning and declaring it a university does not make it one. 


Notwithstanding the lack of universally acceptable criteria for designation as such, there are generally agreed expectations of a real university. At a minimum, a real  university is a formally accredited and chartered institution that (1) offers higher level, post-secondary school education in multiple, internationally recognized disciplines; (2) has faculty and students in each discipline who conduct research and publish their work in international peer-reviewed journals; (3) has offered higher level education and has conducted such research in multiple disciplines for at least five years; and (4) grants undergraduate, postgraduate, and doctoral degrees in multiple disciplines. 


Uganda has some universities that unquestionably enjoy the right to that designation. Makerere University, which was founded 102 years ago, enjoyed a high place of international honour until its near-death experience during the worst years of Uganda’s political and military instability. Happily, Makerere has undergone remarkable recovery and now enjoys ranking among the top 1,000 out of the 23,625 universities in the world. Makerere was ranked number 819 of 14,131 universities in the world this year. It was ranked number 16 among the top 200 out of 2,389 universities in Africa.  


Three other Ugandan institutions have joined Makerere in the club of highly ranked universities. In the same ranking of African universities this year, Kampala International University is at number 82, Mbarara University of Science and Technology is at number 153, and Uganda Christian University is at number 180 out of 2,389 universities.  


With concerted efforts to achieve excellence in overall education, research, and publications, together with playing major roles in evidence-based national social and economic development, more Ugandan universities will likely enjoy places of honour in Africa and the world. 


However, Uganda’s plethora of “universities” are mostly what India classifies as “deemed-to-be-universities.” These are institutions of higher learning that have embarked on the journey towards a noble goal but have a while to go before they earn the legitimacy to the designation of university.  They should be designated “colleges” to distinguish them from “real universities.” Unfortunately labels matter so much in Uganda that we don’t accept “college” just like we call counties “districts “, small towns “cities”, archdeaconries “dioceses”, technicians “engineers”, medical assistants “doctors”, unelected candidates for parliament “honorable”. 


In fact, the designation of “college” is both honorable and desirable. Whereas university graduates contribute a lot to national development, Uganda will be grown by people with practical skills acquired in technical and other vocational colleges. If we had to choose between establishing a university or a college, I would vote for the latter. Countries like Canada, Germany and the USA have been developed by men and women with practical skills, the majority of whom have not stepped in a university.  While more than half of Canadians who go to university do not graduate, their lack of degrees does not prevent them from enjoying impactful and remunerative careers. 


The high quality well-finished houses and other products manufactured in Canada, USA, Germany, Italy, UK, Japan, and Switzerland, for example, are largely made by people with college degrees or high school diplomas followed by long periods of apprenticeship. The same applies to service jobs, which Ugandans often refer to as “Nkuba Kyeyo”, a Luganda phrase that literally means: “I am a sweeper.” It is used as a derogatory term for the Ugandan Diaspora, rooted in a culture that despises manual labor. The Monitor and other Kampala newspapers refer to the work done by Nkuba Kyeyos as “odd jobs”, a not-so-subtle expression of contempt for manual employment.

In fact there is nothing odd about these very important jobs that produce high quality work that distinguishes developed countries’ products from Uganda’s rather unsatisfactory offerings. Much as I have been impressed by the improvement of products made in Uganda, we have a long way to go before we can compete with, say Canadian or German goods and services. Ugandan home builders and other tradesmen leave a lot to be desired. Visit a beautiful looking newly built house in Uganda, and you will find painted walls that appear to have leprosy, doors that do not close easily, showers that leak, floors that are uneven, grout and cement blotches and splashes on tiles and window frames, and many other defects. The problem is inadequately trained craftsmen set loose upon a client’s dream home. 


The developed countries value craftsmen, factory workers, home builders, road construction and maintenance workers, tourism guides, sanitation workers, personal support workers, other service industry employees, farm hands, taxi drivers and other transportation workers, salesmen and so on.  They are the backbone of the economy. Their work is no less vital and no less valuable than the work of lawyers, teachers, doctors, accountants, politicians, or pilots.Theirs are respectable and essential jobs that have built these countries into developed societies from which Uganda receives foreign aid and investment. These societies are the handiwork of men and women with basic or college education and outstanding skills acquired through apprenticeship and experience. So, they get excellent education in colleges, very good salaries, and opportunities for continued learning and improvement. 

The Ugandan obsession with university degrees and so-called white-collar jobs is in stark contrast with the attitudes in the developed countries. No doubt a university degree confers many advantages on the holder. In Canada, for example, “returns on education” data shows that, on average, university graduates earn more than college graduates. However, closer examination has shown that university degrees are “not born equal.” One study found that males with university degrees in “academic” disciplines (examples: humanities, education, biology, agricultural science) earned less than half of what was earned by males with vocational and applied disciplines (examples: medicine, engineering, commerce. Another study found a similar pattern for college disciplines.) 


Though published nearly twenty years ago, these studies suggested that one’s field of study may have been of greater value than the type of academic institution one attended.  More recent observations have endorsed these earlier findings. Indeed, increasing numbers of Canadian university graduates are seeking a college diploma following university graduation. It is not clear what motivates university graduates to seek college education. One view is that the applied programs in colleges may enhance one’s abilities at work. To be sure, a craftsman is more likely to find work than a fancy degree holder in a discipline that is not in high demand. We are seeing this phenomenon in Uganda.

The bottom line is that Uganda needs more post-secondary school institutions of learning. An ordinary or advanced certificate of education alone is not sufficient in a competitive market. Furthermore, Uganda’s high school education curriculum does not prepare students for the job market or innovation and job creation. We need more technical and other vocational colleges than “universities” whose graduates carry academic titles but are unable to create jobs or to contribute to the physical and economic development of our country.


© Muniini K. Mulera

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