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Unseen crisis in funding higher education

The year 2015 was a difficult year in Florence Nambafu’s household in Bulambuli.

Her mother had struggled to get her to complete her A-levels at Mbale SS. And just as they were glowing in her achievement, while plotting on getting into university, she died in a boda boda accident, one June evening.

A friend then brought her a copy of the day’s newspaper, which featured an advert from the Higher Education Students Financing Board (HESFB), popularly known as the students’ loan scheme.

Established by an act of parliament in 2014, the HESFB manages government funds, needed to finance students pursuing studies in higher education institutions in Uganda. Under regulations, the HESFB provides loans and scholarships to needy but brilliant students in the science and technology programmes.

Nambafu applied for admission to Busitema University, before also applying for a loan to facilitate her studies on the Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Mechanisation programme there. Her application was one of the thousands received by the HESFB that year, but many were not as lucky.

OVERWHELMING NEED

HESFB executive director Michael Wanyama is concerned at the level of need for the loans.

“The board received 3,575 applications, but only 1,191 were successful last year compared to 1,276, the previous year,” he said. “However, the number is expected to rise to 1,334 after the board awards loans to diploma students at other tertiary institutions.”

Wanyama notes that the demand for these loans continues to rise each year and they will increasingly need more money to meet the requests to the board. The deputy vice chancellor for Finance and Administration at Kampala International University, Dr Janice Busingye agrees.

“Not everyone who wants a university place is able to secure it … many get admitted but never show up for registration, for lack of tuition fees,” she explains.

Dr Janice Busingye

Each year, the government sponsors 4,000 students under a national merit scheme, spread through the eight public universities.

Since 2005, nearly 1,000 more are also supported under what is known as the district quota system, covering at least 118 districts (eight per district). In addition, a smaller government scheme also assists persons with disabilities and those endowed with sports.

LACK OF OPPORTUNITIES

The liberalization of university education in Uganda has seen phenomenal growth in the number of institutions and enrollment of students, over the last 20 years. Dr Busingye contends that this situation is compounded by lack of sufficient channels to secure funding to feed this demand.

“If you are not admitted to a public university through a state scholarship, your only options are to secure private funding means such as the MasterCard scholarship, a bursary by the admitting university; or if you are female, the Makerere University Female Scholarship Initiative,” she explained.

“There is a need to address the funding gap on the students’ side since only a few of the student applicants can access money for tuition, among many other issues.”

The National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) lists at least 40 institutions registered as private universities, many operating on provisional licenses, while others are offering lower qualifications at diploma and certificate level.

Consequently, the NCHE executive director, Prof John Opuda-Asibo agrees with Dr Busingye, explaining that there has been a shift in government policy, influenced by multilateral donors, away from higher education to lower levels in the mid-1990s.

“Initial investment in the higher education system is very low in Africa compared with other levels of education. This is bound to affect the sector,” Prof Asibo said.

He explains that primary and secondary schools get more attention than university education. Consequently, the NCHE puts the gross enrolment ratio of students in university education in Africa at 40 per cent.

In East Africa, Uganda has the smallest university enrolment ratio at only 6.8 per cent, behind Kenya and Rwanda, both at nine per cent. That far fewer students are gaining admission to university than our potential suggests, could lead to adverse effects on the economy.

“We are experiencing a shortage of competent manpower to run major institutions in the country, and this is only going to get worse, as more opt for the easy way out, such as petty trade, boda boda business, and worse, sitting at home and doing nothing,” Dr Busingye explains.

GOVT ADMISSION

The government also admits that there is a problem.

In its preface to the Uganda Students’ Higher Education Financing policy of 2012, the education ministry stated that, “the current higher education sponsorship to universities and tertiary institutions leaves a lot to be desired by the Ugandan students, who are unable to afford the cost of education at institutions of higher learning”.

The document called for reforms in higher education financing especially due to the increase in the number of institutions of higher learning.

“The increase in the number of students at the secondary school level as a result of the Universal Secondary Education, one of several achievements of the current government, has seen an increased growth in higher education admissions,” the document states in part.

“There is need for government to support the needy who find difficulty in accessing higher education due to the lack of tuition fees to see them through school.”

That justification led to the formation of the HESFB, which while positive so far, remains inadequate.

Busingye contends that for the likes of Nambafu and others, a lot needs to be resolved for able students to realise their potential.

“Until we address the lack of funding opportunities facing students, things will only get worse.” she adds.

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