Some weeks ago, the Uganda Business and Technical Examinations Board (Ubteb) released the results for the 2016 examinations.
First lady and minister for education and sports Janet Museveni presided over the occasion in Kampala together with other officials of the board. The occasion was low-key and elicited minimal publicity, almost as if there was something embarrassing about it.
The pomp and flare that accompanies the release of national examinations such as PLE, UCE and UACE was completely absent. At PLE, UCE and UACE, the public is given advance notification and the mood is electric.
And when the results are released (by the Uganda National Examinations Board), it is all over the news – radio, TV, newspapers, social media, streets, homes and public places. The newspapers have an attention-grabbing way of allotting full coverage with no other news seeing prime space for close to a week each time.
Individual performers are snapped and interviewed, rejoicing with relatives and friends. This is free, standard coverage; then there are paid-for adverts in which schools and elated parents and guardians book space to demonstrate their pride.
This press interest in education is good and gives star performers the honours they deserve. It has encouraged schools to compete among themselves in a way that raises standards and performance and draws attention to the value of education, leading to greater enrollment of all age groups into the education cycle.
If there is anything that showcases how much education has developed and evolved, it’s how it is covered by the media and the views accompanying that coverage.
Now, as I said, Ubteb missed the publicity mark by far. I recall seeing only a small story in one newspaper and nothing else!
Uganda is at a moment when almost everybody agrees that the ‘old’ curriculum which emphasized theoretical instruction leading to saturation of the job market with job-seekers, and not creators, should be phased out, or reviewed significantly.
This process is on, taking various forms. Practical skills have progressively been incorporated in the school syllabus and scattered under various sectors – education, gender, trade and industry, etc.
My understanding is that Ubteb is the body charged with standardizing and examining training in practical courses that one would otherwise call ‘blue-collar’ courses, but which are increasingly the recommended recourse for a country short on job placements and rich in unemployment incidences.
Also, all our development plans and programmes including the global Sustainable Development Goals, national ones such as reaching middle-income status by 2020, Vision 2040 and most policy statements contain something about promoting the study of technical and entrepreneurial courses as well as putting them in practice.
Is it not a grand paradox when, therefore, students and successful finalists in such courses aren’t granted ‘prime space’ honours when we expect them to be torchbearers for the country’s transformation programme? How will others be motivated to branch into the world of practical skills development?
What I know is that there is no deliberate arrangement to keep Ubteb unacknowledged. The blackout has to do with where we have been – theoretical instruction and cultural consideration of business, technical and vocational students as failures or ‘dirty’ or poor.
Enrollment has, consequently, always been low and even for those who get on board, pride in their career choice is low. Records show that last year, 62,896 students registered to sit for Ubteb. No need to say that it was an increase from previous years!
In comparison, there are hundreds of thousands of candidates at PLE, UCE and UACE. But numbers of candidates alone don’t explain why broad coverage and interest in non-Uneb examinations is lacking.
Universities enroll tens of thousands of students and roll out a similar number of graduates but they elicit respectable coverage, including entire listings in the press. It is a matter of priorities and coordination between policymakers, instructors, examiners, students, parents and the information world.
Ubteb management should consider how to popularize both the field they run and the outcomes. Methods may include directly co-opting the media and paying for space.
The author is a member of the Commonwealth Writers Group.