Calls to exclude rich students from HE sponsorships

Amid concern over funding for Uganda’s higher education sector, calls have grown louder that the government should offer loans, rather than sponsorships or bursaries, to students – and should exclude the children from wealthy families from financial aid benefits for university study.

At present, in Uganda, government sponsorships reward academic achievers when they enter public higher education, including the children from high-income families.

Some of these families intentionally send their children to the best primary and secondary schools as an investment, knowing their children are likely to achieve academically in the school exit exam, and, on that basis, they will earn a government sponsorship for their university studies.

Picking up on this phenomenon, Thomas Tayebwa, the deputy speaker of parliament, said at Makerere University’s centenary ceremony in October that the current government scholarship system is “inverted” – rewarding rich children at the expense of the poor.

“We are educating our children in good schools to excel and benefit from government sponsorships. The school fees in some of those schools are higher than the tuition fees of a university,” he said.

Experts, in fact, have long suggested the Ugandan government should stop, or cut down on, scholarships altogether, because of these alleged abuses and benefits for the wealthy.

Bbosa Kizito, the loans and scholarship manager at the Uganda Higher Education Students Financing Board (HESFB), told University World News: “All institutions of higher learning, including private ones, should be given loans, rather than grants, as a means to improve efficiency, reduce wastage of resources and create ownership.”

Coming from the same school of thought, Bob Nuwagira, a senior communications manager at HESFB, says it is advocating for the same.

“Just like Tanzania and Kenya, we are asking the government to invest more in student loans than in government sponsorship,” he says.

Loans schemes

Loan schemes are popular. Many governments have abolished government sponsorship or bursary schemes and invested all their money in these loan schemes to improve access to higher education because this is believed to be more cost efficient and sustainable.

The higher education financing reasoning is simple; student loans are a sustainable approach to financing higher education whereas scholarships are grants.

Moreover, less privileged students who meet the requirements will get a chance to attain higher education. For instance, in the 2021-22 academic year at least 4,873 candidates qualified, but, due to limited resources, only 1,530 (31.2%) were awarded loans. The number of applicants was 6,023 students, up from 5,590 in 2021.

Said Professor Callisto Locheng, the chairperson of the board: “It is with no doubt that we need more resources to support the increasing number of applicants.”

In addition to the loans, the Ugandan government awards 4,000 students scholarships every year – inclusive of district bursaries, State House scholarships and science courses.

At US$4,700, including academic and welfare or living costs, a government sponsored student is also more expensive per unit cost than the US$1,167 for the students under the loans scheme – where it only caters for only the academic component and a student caters for their welfare in a cost-sharing model.

In other words, with the current model one government sponsored student in Uganda’s higher education system can pay for three to four loan scheme students.

Tayebwa’s call to revise the process of awarding government sponsorships speaks to the fact that children of high-income families attend high schools where tuition fees are higher than what is charged by the universities.

Rich parents look at this as an investment. They pay high fees at high school level and get free education at university. After all, about 90% of all the students in those schools qualify to get free education under government scholarships at university.

Tayebwa prefers government sponsorship to be given to children across underprivileged districts in the country who cannot afford tuition in higher institutions.

How government scholarships work

The initial aim of the government’s undergraduate sponsorship programme was to award students who performed academically with free study opportunities at university level based on their performance in the Uganda Advanced Certificate of Education (UACE).

Students who qualify get, among other benefits, free tuition, as well as meal and accommodation allowances, which are aimed at those who do not get placements in the halls of public university residences.

The programme admits 4,000 students each year across all of the public universities in the country and is divided into three categories.

The direct admissions scheme, also known as the national merit, admits 75% of the best performing students (about 3,000) from across the country to programmes at public universities.

The district quota scheme admits top-performing students from each district. About 800 students are beneficiaries and are selected, depending on their performance, by a board with representatives from each of the public universities. The number of students drawn from each district depends on the population of that district.

The final category is the sports and special needs scheme which supports outstanding sportsmen and sportswomen, and also people with disabilities. This caters to 200 students.

Scholars argue that all students should be admitted to universities on merit.

Schools which are based in rural areas where most of the children of the poor attend school should get more funding from the government. This will level the playing field for all students.