The COVID-19 pandemic has battered the Ugandan economy, with lockdown measures instituted by government to mitigate community spread of the virus affecting access to basic social services like health and education.
Although government of Uganda moved to reopen all sectors in January 2022 to reverse the downturn caused by the pandemic, the effects of COVID-19 are coming back to affect people’s livelihoods.
In the education sector, the National Planning Authority projected that 30% of 15 million leaners in Uganda were to forever drop out of school by the start of the current academic term, for reasons including inability to afford school fees.
The same projection estimated 4,339 secondary and primary schools were bound to fold due to financial distress, after a lockdown of academic institutions for more than 22 months, with government only reopening the sector on 10th January 2022.
At the time of reopening, Ministry of Education echoed earlier warnings, asking proprietors of schools to desist from hiking charges and implementating major development projects, in addition to asset acquisition funded from parents’ contributions.
In the same breath, the Ministry’s Permanent Secretary, Ms Ketty Lamaro ordered schools seeking to review charges to put-in a request justifying this action to the Ministry of education, which she said would be considered on a case-by-case basis.
However, media reports indicate that schools disregarded the directive to halt any raise in fees, as some of them increased charges by three-fold. The proprietors cited high operation costs and the need to service loans dating two years back.
This absence of proper intervention by Government created policy and regulatory gaps within the education sector, with prolonged shutdown adversely affecting actors and the delivery of education services in Uganda in the wake of resumption.
Wizarts Foundation in the back-to-school series, a multi-media program produced in different local languages, is driving discourse around the challenges facing the education sector.
In one of the Wizarts Spaces organized on Twitter to discuss the problem, our editorial decisions were guided by magnitude and impact, which are key principles in media selection of the agenda for the public based on the size and consequences of certain issues.
Critiquing Government’s approach to the issues affecting the education sector in light of the school fees dilemma, Senior Journalist Charles Mwanguhya said Government missed the window of opportunity to plan for the sector and adequately prepare the public for school resumption.
“In face of COVID-19, schools and the boda sector endured the longest lockdowns in the country, and parents were unable to earn income for the last two years. Therefore, a careful balancing was required to ensure investors in the education system and these parents coexist and survive together. It is important that a serious thought was gotten into by government, before issuing instructions saying don’t increase school fees, even when they knew schools wouldn’t listen,” Mwanguhya stated.
Mwanguhya currently works as Manager corporate affairs and communications at Tugende – a boda-boda credit company with operations in Uganda. He was selected during editorial meeting for the Wizarts Spaces to present on the question of school fees in revamping the education sector in Uganda, given his media experience and education background with formal training as a teacher.
He said government had 22 months to address challenges facing the education sector through policy interventions, an opportunity that was missed: “government should have thought about the learners, what does it take for them to get back to school. Some pay their own school fees. Government also should have thought about the parents, how do you enable them be able to pay school fees without denying the schools an opportunity to reopen and function as businesses”
Dr. Dennis Mugimba, the spokesperson of Ministry of Education, got his right of response being a panelist in the Wizarts Space. He objected to arbitrary increase of school fees by proprietors, and even some government schools, saying the consequences of these actions have excluded many learners from accessing education.
“Government is not against charging school fees, but it is against arbitrary increment and you have to justify the school fees structure you’re coming up with. Should there be a justifiable cause, there’s a procedure. What we saw, was a violation of that process. If you analyze the school fees structure being tabled by some of these institutions, a significant part of it goes out. That is where we have a problem,” Mugimba said
Mugimba revealed that the problem the Ministry currently faces in implementing its directive against school fees raise, is the lack of a backing of a policy instrument that is enforceable, without which it has proven difficult to regulate school fees standards.
Uganda’s problems regarding regulation of school charges dates back to 1993, when the country moved to implement the structural adjustment programs on advise of the Bretton Woods Institutions.
This policy shift supported by the world bank and the International Monetary Fund allowed private players to operate schools in Uganda, with the objective of improving the general quality and public access to education affordable education. The move then was driven towards the realization of the Millenium Development Goals.
However, researcher Ms. Franklin Higenyi, in assessing the current impact of privatization (the shift towards managing rather than government providing services directly to the public) in the delivery of education services, found the policy failed to achieve its initial objectives.
She noted, through focus group discussions and key informant interviews with local women in Ibanda District, South Western Uganda, that high fees was a major impediment to equitable education. In addition, revealed that stringent government policies, poor infrastructure and high levels of corruption inhibited the transformation of the education sector in Uganda towards achieving national development.
Mwanguhya holds that the sector is currently under prioritized and inadequately funded by the Government. Despite this challange, he said journalists have not executed themselves well to call government to account. He noted that the media has tended to ignore the ridiculous demands on parents by private schools, but also understated the disproportionate investment into public education by Government that is resurfacing the school fees debate.
Currently, the capitation grant to Universal Primary Education (UPE) schools for each pupil in Uganda stands at a dismal Shillings 10,000 per year. President Museveni has severally contended that students in these UPE schools should not be charged any fee, which to Charles Mwanguhya causes discrepancy that the media should expose to the public.
In light of this challange mounted on the media to cause government to account, Damali Mukhaye, a reporter covering education for Nation Media Group, revealed during a previously Wizarts Space that some journalists have abandoned reporting on the education sector due to difficulty in accessing information. She argued that since the First Lady became the Minister for Education, officials at the Minsitry fear speaking to the media. This makes it difficult for government to account to the citizenry and for the media to aid in this role.