Thursday, March 1, 2012

'A' level, university, vocational education or just get a job?

At last, it's the A level results. And what a relief it is, too! After angst over PLE (Primary Leaving Examination) drop-out and heart-searching over O level science results and girls' performance, the nation's middle classes opened their newspapers to see that (almost) all was well in their senior secondary schools. A whopping 90% of those who sat the A level examinations managed to pass them, a slight rise since last year.

UNEB (Uganda National Examination Board) announced that an extra 2,000 or so candidates had sat the exams and, gratifyingly, the number of girls had increased. Girls now make up 40.8% of 'A' level candidates.

And there's more good news for girls. They have a slightly lower failure rate than boys (0.6% compared with 0.9%) and they do just as well in arts subjects, physics and chemistry. In fact, girls do better than boys in entrepreneurship education, religious education, geography, literature in English and biology. Boys do better in history, economics and art.

How did the sciences do, given their poor showing at O level? Entries fell but performance slightly increased. Mind you, only 40-49% passed physics and chemistry compared with up to 60% in most other subjects. The Education Minister was glad to see the improvement but regretted that only 20% of candidates had chosen mathematics and science subjects, curriculum areas essential for the country's future development and the expansion of industry. The lack of interest in science almost certainly reflects the lack of proper laboratory facilities.

The next cohort of A level students will start school on Monday. This is the first year of the so-called USE A level courses (Universal Secondary Education).  This term 'USE' is something of a misnomer as education at this level is anything but 'universal'. USE in this context means 'free', although even that adjective is inaccurate. The government may pay the official fees (Shs80,000 for those going to government schools and Shs85,000 for those in private schools in partnership with the government), but parents have to pay for books, uniform, 'development' or PTA fees, food and a whole lot more. This can come to Shs150,000 for uniform alone. When you count in everything else, it probably comes to at least Shs500,000 per term.

This year, as many as 235,000 young people, 47.7% of those who qualified for admission into Senior Five, will be denied places as the government has said it will only fund those with O level results between Division 1 and Division 3.  Furthermore, 150,000 young people who got good enough results to get into government-aided A level courses or equivalent (such as in primary teachers' colleges,and business technical vocational (BTVET) institutions) were also denied entry this year due to a shortage of classrooms and teachers.

The Commissioner advised those students unable to get into a government establishment to apply to private institutions, perhaps forgetting that fees alone could amount to more than Shs500,000 per term (£130).  In fact, most senior secondary schools have not only raised their fees this year (many to Shs 1 million and the elite schools as much as Shs1.5 million per term), they also raised their cut-of points for entry due to the increase in the numbers of those passing O level. Even if students have succeeded in getting into the schools, if they don't have their fees at the time of registration, they usually lose the place.

What is the alternative to A level, if you cannot get into the course or school you want? You can go to primary teachers' colleges - the only free tertiary education - or BTVET. About PTCs, more later.

You would think that courses in BTVET institutions would be highly valued given the desperate need for technical skills across the country and in all areas of business and industry, including the country's fledgling oil industry.  Alas no, BTVET institutions are the poor relations of senior secondary schools, under-funded and of lower status. The results are poorer too. Although this year a higher proportion of students passed Technical Education Examinations (TEE) and Community Polytechnics Certificates of Education (CPCE), 49% compared to 40% last year, these results are still not good enough, especially when compared with pass rates at A level. Sadly, in technical institutions, only 25% of candidates were girls. The resourcing of BTVET institutions is a significant issue.

All these factors explain why entry into a senior secondary school is so important, but also extremely difficult. Therefore, those young people who have not only got in but have survived and passed their courses have done very well indeed. As with 'O' level, while many candidates came from privileged backgrounds, others have shown considerable fortitude and resilience in the face of many obstacles. As usual, the pages of the newspapers are full of the tributes submitted by schools and proud parents. The examples in italics below come from the Daily Monitor.

Christopher Baleke in Hoima said, 'I sat for exams when I was suffering from malaria, and most of my time was spent worrying about money to buy school essentials.' He and his mother sold pancakes and banana juice to raise the money.

Geoffrey Matende in Jinja said, 'Although I was in UPE school I was always struggling hard to get at least Shs500 (13 pence) to buy exercise books and when I reached Senior 4 and got stuck, I started growing sugarcanes from which I managed to pay fees for Advanced Level studies.'

Many of the successful A level students have high aspirations. Many say they want to help their people and their country.

Nabulindwa wants to become a flight engineer......she is inspired to work hard by her disabled mother who operates a saloon in Nakasongola Town to raise her fees.

Aisu of Iganga wants to study law to help vulnerable people. 'I want to help my people legally. They are suffering. Rich people are taking away their land but because they have no lawyers they end up losing.' He thanked the school management for being patient with him when he had no fees.

Gloria Akumudoch in Gulu was grateful that her teachers used discussion as a teaching approach. She said, 'I am planning to go for education to enhance the level of performance in northern Uganda.'

Good to see that teaching is a first, not a last option!

Good luck to all these young people. May they retain their ideals and aspirations and through their study and hard work make their country a better place.

Well, the result of all their determination and success at A level is that the number of candidates eligible for admission to universities and other tertiary institutions has increased. A total of 65,417 candidates (64%) qualified for admission to university and other tertiary institutions this year, compared to 61,820 in 2010 (62%). To qualify for tertiary education, applicants require a minimum of two 'principal' subjects. This means that an extra 3,894 candidates are competing for university places at the five more prestigious government universities (Busitema, Gulu, Kyambogo, Mbarara and Makerere) and the scores of less prestigious private establishments. Sadly, many of the private institutions have abysmally low standards of tuition and award pretty worthless qualifications. A good number are unregistered or, indeed, 'fake'. The most successful students may qualify for a government grant to go to the better government institutions, but many will have to fund themselves. Unfortunately, data from university admissions show that girls aiming for government scholarships for science courses tend to lose out to boys. 

However, even if young people do go to university or further education and graduate, what then are their chances of employment?

The official unemployment rate in Uganda is 3.5% across the country and 10% in urban areas. This sounds remarkably low. However, only 5% of Ugandans have permanent jobs. Worse again, a recent study by the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI) found that 65% of the population are underemployed - able to get a job for only one hour or so a day. There is no unemployment benefit so data about the true situation is very thin. Almost everybody gets by by doing a bit of this and a bit of that. Those in the country benefit from access to home grown food. Those in the towns benefit from the wider availability of 'odd jobs'. Still, developing secure livelihoods, the kind which enable families to plan for the future and invest in medical care and education for their children, is a major priority in countries like Uganda - and a significant aspect of VSO's work.

As in the rest of the world, getting your A levels and then a degree is no guarantee of employment, but more so here. Graduate jobs are largely acquired through family (dare one say clan?) connections and networks. The elite and upper class circulate posts among themselves. It's tough if you have none of these social advantages.

That means that there is a premium in the job market on individual creativity and entrepreneurship. These are the very qualities that a conservative and rigid Ugandan secondary school education undervalues and which properly funded and respected BTVET institutions should be developing. 

However, some examples of mini-Richard Bransons do trickle through to the press, like the young graduate who had tramped the streets in search of a job and ended up going back to 'the village' and his grandparents' land. This action was his saving. He started farming using up-to-date methods (one advantage of having a good education!), and is now a major producer of ginger. 

The Monitor's farming and business pages often give fascinating vignettes of people who have taken similar action to make their own futures. Many of the examples are of women who bit by bit put a bit of money by, expand their matoke or charcoal-selling business and gradually earn enough to educate their children and build their own houses. Interestingly, a column by Richard Branson is published every week in the Monitor.

An article the other day said that fruit juice businesses in Uganda were IMPORTING fruit from other countries to deal with increasing demand, this in a country with an wonderful array of pineapples, mangoes, passionfruit and pawpaws! Why? Because Ugandan farming is based on subsistence production. Another opportunity for bright innovative young people prepared to turn their back on conventional academic schooling.

Now that the O and A level results are out, the papers are indeed publishing articles about vocational alternatives to secondary school education, institutions often seen as places of last resort. The Education Minister herself has said, 'The focus is to address the challenges of lack of productive skills and unemployment in our country especially among the youth.' She went on to blame the 'demeaning' of technical education on the Ugandan system with its emphasis on academic and theoretical learning.

There are 145 public BTVET institutions and about 600 private training service providers. There are also apprentice-ship and enterprise-based training programmes but no one knows how many. BTVET institutions include technical institutes, vocational institutes, technical schools and farm schools, as well as teacher training colleges, computer training firms and community polytechnics. About 9,881 students are expected to enrol in BTVET institutions this year. (Given the almost complete lack of reliable data in Uganda, I am particularly impressed by the '1' at the end of that total!)

The Assistant Commissioner for BTVET said of such institutions, '...a person is employed at the age of 17 or 18 years. He also moves out of school as a job creator other than [sic] a job seeker.'

As is often the case, NGOs move in to fill some of the gaps in public provision. One example is a new vocational education centre being established in Lyantonde by an organisation called Salama Shield Foundation. SSF began as a research project to study the effects of HIV/Aids on women's behaviour. Women often lived as marginal members of the community and had serious difficulties in educating their children. SSF will admit 325 orphans and vulnerable young people with O level education from HIV/Aids affected households and prepare them for diplomas in sustainable tropical agriculture, brick-laying, carpentry, auto mechanics, textiles, hospitality and other such courses, as well as developing skills in IT, English, business and entrepreneurship.

Let us hope that more and more young people take their own future and the future of their country into their own hands. Far too many of them drop out and end up semi-literate and driving boda bodas or working as maids. The most important qualities may not be academic after all. Resilience, determination, self-belief: all these are probably equally if not more crucial for eventual 'success' whatever that might be - as is a country which values the whole range of skills and talent which young people can demonstrate, given half a chance.

The last word really should go to Martin Wepukhulu in Mbale who said of his A level success, 'I want to advise all students that all schools in this country are the same with similar teachers. You should not say I am going to a third world school so I cannot pass my exam. It is determination and hard work that works for you, not the good environment of the school you are going to. I assume I have defeated many students who went to schools of big names like St Mary's Kitende just because I trusted myself.'

With confident resilient young people like Martin taking the country into the future, perhaps there is hope for Uganda after all.


  1. Thanks so much for your detailed blog which I stumbled along when researching about the Ugandan education system! I'm a retired teacher in Australia and have visited Uganda twice as we support an NGO near Mbale. Your explanation on how the school system operates has been very enlightening.

  2. Fabulous article its interesting post .:)

  3. I'm wondering if you could comment further on the A Level Exams. I'm waiting to hear the results from four girls who sat those exams in December. I'm not sure I understand the scoring. I think they use the grade/score from their General Paper and from their scores on their Combination and add them together and that the highest score possible is a 25. I'm not sure how many subjects are tested from their combination. I believe that 6 is equal to an A and is the highest mark, 5 is equal to a B, 4/C, 3/D, 2/E, 1/0 and 0/F. If I understand, a student's minimum score for university is two 2's. Seems low. I find it all very confusing, especially the Combination of subjects. Thanks. Judy P.S. I will now read other entries of your blog. I'm always looking for Uganda blogs and just lucked on to yours while searching for information on UCAE exams.

    1. I am not sure I entirely understand either, Judy, but here goes. You are right about the grade/mark equivalence. Students take principal subjects (until now, 4 of these, but now to reduce to 3)and 2 (?) subsidiary subjects - general paper for all + either maths or ICT. The combination of principal subjects will depend on whether they have chosen Arts or Sciences. For university entrance, the scores in the various A level subjects are added up, together with O level results. Subjects are weighted in terms of their perceived difficulty. I am not sure about the two 2s. Not sure how helpful this is!

  4. I'd really like to hear news on how the vocational centre at Lyantonde, so if anyone has any info, it would be much appreciated.

  5. Sorry I can't help you here, Chris. I left Uganda eighteen months ago. Pleased to see that people are still reading the blog, though! Perhaps other readers can help?

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