Every August, successful senior six candidates, also known as 'freshers', are under pressure to apply to various universities. They move from one institution of higher education to another in search of vacancies while paying various application fees.
As YUDAYA NANGONZI writes, the National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) wants government to replace this system with a body that can be tasked to centrally handle admission of students countrywide to public and private institutions.
On April 22, 2014, the Higher Education Students Financing Board (HESFB) was inaugurated as a corporate semi-autonomous body mandated to provide loans and scholarships to needy but brilliant students intending to pursue higher education.
In the financial year 2014/15, a total of Shs 6bn was earmarked to start the scheme with financing students’ fees, functional and research fees as well as provide aids and appliances for persons living with disabilities.
According to HESFB loan guidelines, “a loanee shall be given a grace period of one year after study, to start repaying the loan with a seven per cent interest”.
When this was announced then, it got many thinking how the loan board would ensure that all the monies loaned would be re-paid. This is a time when the board’s members decided to visit the Tanzania Higher Education Loans Board to see how to go about this initiative.
“In doing the consultations with the team in Tanzania, we were thrilled to learn that all students in Tanzania were admitted centrally at institutions of higher learning, which was not the case in Uganda,” said Kizito Bbosa, the loans and scholarship manager at HESFB.
Bbosa told The Observer last week that the Tanzania Central Admission System (CAS) board ensures that all students pay money to it, and not randomly to various universities.
In Uganda, Bbosa said, parents are cheated through hefty application fees yet; their children are not assured of admission.
“We decided to sell this idea [of central admissions] to the council [NCHE] which regulates these universities to see how they can help parents and students from paying exorbitant fees,” Bbosa said. “In Uganda, it is like parents are into gambling their money for applications. If you miss at one university, you can apply and pay again at another.”
A mini survey by The Observer found that universities charge non-refundable application fees ranging from Shs 25,000 to Shs 50,000. For instance, Makerere University, Kyambogo University, Kampala International University and Uganda Christian University (UCU) all charge Shs 50,000 per student. At Uganda Martyrs University (UMU) students pay Shs 40,000 and Shs 25,000 at Kampala University.
Speaking at NCHE offices last week, the NCHE executive director, Prof John Opuda-Asibo, said central admission is the way to go if government wants to improve higher education.
“This will imply that all students will apply at once while in secondary school and be admitted to their areas of choice. We can plan to have the admission process done once or twice a year to cater for the working group as well,” Prof Opuda-Asibo said.
According to Opuda-Asibo also HESFB board member, central admissions will help to eliminate admission of students who don’t qualify to join various programmes.
In January this year, NCHE compiled a reports explaining how privately-owned Busoga University (BU) awarded degrees to South Sudanese and Nigerian students who did not meet the minimum entry criteria for various programmes.
The university officials were later given only six months to respond to NCHE’s concerns or risk revoking their license. So far, three months have elapsed.
Opuda-Asibo said once government adopts the central system of admitting students, such cases as at the BU will be eroded.
“The central admission board will have a system that is linked to that of Uneb, HESFB and NCHE at the click of the mouse. This business of presenting fake academic papers will also be no more,” he said.
The Tanzania Commission for Universities, an equivalent of Uganda’s NCHE, has a whole directorate that handles admissions to all institutions of higher learning.
According to Bbosa, an admission board will address the challenges encountered by HESFB in awarding loans to students as a result of the different admission dates for various institutions.
“For purposes of fairness and equity, you want to select students for loans when everyone is assured of their admission which is a key input to our work,” he said. For instance, he explained that National Teachers' Colleges (NTCs) usually admit students last and as such, they have time and again got students with low grades after failing to be admitted at universities. Tertiary institutions too have various application dates.
And, by this time, HESFB has already completed the selection process for the prospective students, which Bbosa finds unfair to the needy students. He argues that while Uneb released examinations results by February, it will take universities up to August to admit students because there is no one directly responsible for admissions.
“In the end, parents will be given only two weeks to prepare students to start higher education, pay tuition and hostel fees. Yet, if we have a central admission system, admission can start around April and end in that same month so that parents, students and universities prepare sufficiently to start studies in August,” Bbosa said.
Due to funding constraints, HESFB is currently supposed to select only 1,000 needy students. But Opuda-Asibo said centralizing admissions should come with awarding loans to all Ugandans intending to pursue higher education.
He cited a country like Tanzania where its government annually sets aside TZs 916bn (about Shs 1.4bn) annually to offer loans to all its citizens. This has been operational for the last 10 years.
“Whether needy or not, as long as you get the marks for entry into higher education, everybody pays tax and the money should be set aside for all Ugandans to study on loan and pay later,” he said.
But parents who can afford funding their children’s education, he said, can go ahead and decline taking on the loans. For the future, Opuda-Asibo thinks this loan initiative will reduce on the unrest at universities in form of strikes and unnecessary tuition increments, among others, since all students will be with loan.
“If a parent has some little money, they can also start repaying the loan at their own pace while the children are studying. This will stop people from the pressure of selling their land, houses, and cattle to educate their children,” he said.
Evelyn Aijuka, NCHE member representing students, commended the council's move on central admissions, saying it will be cost-effective to students.
“Most times, students apply to different universities for programmes but have not been guided enough on what they want to study. I believe this system will help parents who are conned by students to pay more application fees,” Aijuka said, adding that NCHE and government will easily establish university enrolment figures as well as help students that fall prey to courses that are not accredited.
Prof Joseph Lutalo-Bosa, the vice chancellor at Team University, told The Observer that once admissions are centralized, universities will be relieved of the burden to sort thousands of applications of prospective students.
Lutalo-Bosa also urged government to set up a system to enable private and public universities to compete and work hard to better themselves through research in a bid to improve the quality of education in higher institutions.
As government plans to take up the idea of central admissions, Opuda-Asibo remains optimistic about the challenges to encounter in this bid.
“We are working on this idea but we know there is going to be resistance from people who earn money from these application fees. But, we shall continue with our plans and see how to address such people,” he said.