New universities and 20 technical colleges on the cards

Uganda’s government has halted the trend of upgrading tertiary colleges into universities. Instead it will create new universities from scratch and is also planning to set up 20 new technical colleges to expand vocational education and training.

Higher education authorities said there was nothing wrong with upgrading colleges to universities, but this was no longer necessary given the rising number of universities.

Several prominent tertiary and technical colleges – Busitema, Kyambogo and Gulu as well as the National College of Business Studies – have been elevated into universities.

The outcomes have been both good and bad, and there has since been a clamour by other, smaller vocational institutions and even some secondary schools to be upgraded.

Conflicting statements

Professor John Opuda-Asibo, executive director of the National Council of Higher Education or NCHE, told University World News that Uganda had followed the international trend in upgrading colleges, and that the move was necessary to increase access to higher education and respond to student demand.

At the time, access to higher education in Uganda was even lower than the 7% participation rate that it has today. However, it was a trend that should stop. “It was not a mistake as such, only a trend,” he said.

But last month Jessica Alupo, the minister of education, was reported by local media as saying that the government regretted turning Busitema – a former agricultural institute – into a university, and promised never to do it again.

“This was a grave mistake and it should never happen again. The government has decided that in future, it will set aside funds if there is a need to create a new university, so that it is established where there will be free land. No vocational institution will be turned into universities anymore,” said Alupo.

Lack of direction

Ambrose Kibuuka, an education and career guidance consultant, commented that there was a lot of “guesswork policies and programmes based on attractive intuition” in the higher education sector. “There has to be a tough policy and regulation of universities”.

Some higher education officials said turning technical and vocational colleges into universities was both political and profit-oriented.

There was an ongoing political discourse that pushes for each region to have its own university.

But this was happening without quality assurance being undertaken to ensure that new universities added value to the blend of existing graduates. The result was many graduates with the same degree from different universities, having studied different things.

“That lack of harmony in the quality assurance of higher education is ultimately reflected in the quality and productivity of graduates,” said Steven Ssebale, head of human capital development at the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology.

Colleges had also been upgraded for a profit motive – to enrol as many students as possible, even when programmes were being duplicated.

“Emerging universities do not teach any new courses but rather the same ones already being offered in existing universities, duplicating academic programmes – moreover by copy and paste,” Ssebale said.

The National Council of Higher Education has been accused of having no strategic plan and failing to inform stakeholders of national human capacity needs. “Manpower planning and not knowing what skills the country will need in the coming years is the real issue,” said Ssebale.

Labour market dynamics

Labour market dynamics are also playing a role, as many employers value degree holders over diploma holders, regardless of the job. Over time degree holders have been hired for jobs that should be occupied by vocational and technical college graduates.

“As a result, everyone wants to go to university. It is now a consensus subscribed to by parents and students alike, reinforced by the media and not helped at all by government,” said Ambrose Kibuuka.

He argued that as more people seek to enrol in universities instead of vocational training, universities are coming under attack for not producing graduates who are hands-on. In response, universities are diluting their core mandate of being centres of innovation and creative thinking in a desperate attempt to ‘vocationalise’.

This has created an identity crisis among universities and led to the production of graduates who are neither theoretically astute nor technically practical.

Kibuuka said that on the other hand, vocational institutes were struggling to set up curricula to fit the theoretical slant of universities so they could be seen as close enough to the degree qualification coveted in the labour market.

They were doing this by making transcripts appear close to those of universities and hiring people who taught in universities. “It is all a mess.”

Professor Annabella Habinka Ejiri, director of the institute of computer science at Mbarara University of Science and Technology, pointed out that vocational training worldwide was skills based and did not need PhDs or publications, key requirements for university lecturers. “Merging both can cause confusion.”

Policy turnaround

Now the government plans to create 20 new technical institutions, and NCHE’s John Opuda-Asibo said government would also be creating new universities from scratch.

Kibuuka supported the move, saying colleges should be left as business, technical and vocational institutions, rather than being ‘upgraded’. “A country that produces more engineers than technicians is like an army with more commanders than foot soldiers,” he said.