For decades after its founding, Makerere University admitted students according to their performance.
Success for most students (and even parents) meant studying hard to qualify to be admitted. Getting admitted to Makerere on government sponsorship was the holy grail of success.
Parents bragged about it. School administrators’ profiles were enhanced. Somebody told me, an entrepreneur even named his school “T-Junction to Makerere Secondary School.”
In the 1990s, Makerere started admitting self-sponsored students and government set up other universities. What you needed was money and two principal passes at A-level. Entrepreneurs set up universities too and hostels to offer accommodation.
Getting a university degree was demystified even though the percentage of Ugandans with degrees isn’t yet high. With all changes that the government made to ensure more people get admitted to universities, one thing remained unchanged — how to get admitted on government sponsorship.
The criterion for one to get admitted is solely based on academic performance. Score the highest points in the final national secondary education exams and you get admitted to a public university on government sponsorship.
The majority of people who score the highest grades are from premium schools where parents and guardians have been paying a lot of money a year.
Of the 1,474 students admitted to Makerere on government sponsorship this year, 346 students representing 23.4% were from schools (Kitende, Budo, Gayaza, Maryhill, Mengo and Namugongo) where annual tuition fees on average is Shs 6m.
At Makerere, average annual tuition fees is Shs 2.4m. So, why give a scholarship to a student whose parents can afford Shs 6m in fees a year in secondary schools?
Although they introduced a system that picks the highest-performing students per a district, still these are students attending the most expensive school in that district. There is, therefore, no need to reward them with government scholarships.
They are already privileged. There was even a student from an international school where the average fees are Shs 30 million a year that was admitted on government scholarship! It is a mockery!
In fact, I know a few who get admitted to Makerere on government scholarships but their parents never send them there as they can afford fees in ivy league universities in America. When I was at graduate school at Rhodes, I saw a few such students.
Others don’t like the courses government admits them to, so they instead opt to pay for themselves as privately sponsored students. The blanket admission of students to universities solely based on their academic performance needs to be rethought by introducing a scholarship program that rewards those who actually need and deserve the government programs.
Makerere University already runs the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program for bright but needy students. You only get this scholarship if you really deserve it.
To be admitted on the program, the administrators visit your home, talk to the neighborhood, parents, previous school and establish that you truly deserve the scholarship. Makerere and indeed other universities can replicate this.
Of course, this would need parliament and government to think beyond the next political election and make this hard decision. After all, the majority of people who vote will never have their children admitted on government scholarship as they won’t afford the secondary school fees where the majority of those admitted on government sponsorships attend.
But selling unachievable dreams is big business for politicians.
Secondly, government can identify academic courses aligned to the national development plan or Vision 2040 and ensure students on government programs are only admitted to those ones.
Let us, for example, look at the automotive industry which is one of the ways through which industrialization can take place in most countries.
We can ringfence government sponsorships to those studying courses to do with the automotive and mobility sectors. That way we can build our capacity for this sector.
Electric vehicles are here but what are our universities doing about it? Artificial intelligence (AI) is heralded as the next big thing that is changing the world. Are we investing in human capital development for it or we can explain?
Thirdly, once anyone is given a government sponsorship, there should be a contract that they will work in the country for a number of years or have to back the money with interest. But we sponsor the students to study medicine and they end up working at Aga Khan and Nairobi hospitals in Kenya.
The teachers we previously trained ended up in South African schools. Many others we are sponsoring today are ending up in Saudi Arabia and Oman (of all places!). We need to rethink our return on investment when it comes to government sponsorships.
The writer is a communications expert and consultant