In Uganda, children from peasant families are being condemned to failure because of an “apartheid” system of education that has been allowed to flourish unabated, driven by the ability to pay rather than merit.
The declining quality of a Uganda’s education system must be a concern to all Ugandans. Along almost every dimension of comparison in our education system today, there has developed glaring inequalities that clearly shows a lack of concern for not only the welfare of our children but the education system as an institution.
Education in Uganda has gone from the sublime to the ridiculous and will soon be accessible to only a chosen few. The Ugandan education system which produced world acclaimed scholars and professionals has been reduced to one whose products are mere minions. Unlike what obtains in other countries where achievements of the past are surpassed by the succeeding generations, in Uganda, references are always made to the feats of the past without any attempt to repeat or re-enact the same. We might have professors and scholars in gazillions but their performance on the world stage is none existant.
This state of affairs has arisen as a result of the mushrooming private schools in the country Built on the foundation that caters exclusively for the “billionaire elite class of 1986” and mainly owned by officials in government; private schools are perpetuating a form of "social apartheid" that is driven at giving rise to a political class drawn from a "segregated money-eyed elite" who will eventually be the only group that can afford to send their children to school.
This continued entrenchment of social and economic inequality and the consolidation of the privilege has become the preserve of our ‘progressive’ NRM society.
In a society where the top 2% own 65% of the wealth in the country, this “societal apartheid” represents a significant move against those who occupy the top-end of the social hierarchy, and education is one way to ensure that this social divide is maintained. The continuation of the private school is thus conditioned upon the existence of a “wealthy class” willing to pay-up. And pay-up they do.
Children from the poorest families are half as likely to achieve good Primary Leaving Examination results let alone attain a master’s degree, because their parents cannot afford the exorbitant fees levied by private schools. They are also three times more likely to be excluded from any form of civil service or white collar employment.
Public schools are shadows of their past, intentionally “killed” to pave way for what has become one of Uganda’s most lucrative businesses; Private schools are institutions that outrightly “purchased” the rights to provide education from a government that had surrendered that responsibly in its entirety; as such a budding inequality across our education system has developed.
Access to wealth means children of the rich are educated at private schools and universities, whilst the poor majority are left to cope with crumbling infrastructures and demoralised teachers in public schools.
Ugandans of our generation must consider themselves fortunate to have been schooled in the Uganda of 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. There was hardly a market for private education then because quality education was available in public schools.
This meant that while children from poor and modest backgrounds had access to education of quite remarkable quality because it was affordable and in some instances free; the wealthy also sent their children to the same schools because the standards were the same and quite high across the country.
You had the children of Presidents, Ministers, Members of Parliament, Civil Servants; other government officials and millionaires mixing with the children of peasants and those from middle class backgrounds.
What was created were conditions for social mobility for the lower socio-economic groups. The child of a village peasant with ability had the opportunity to rise beyond the conditions of his birth with the benefits of a quality education at little or no cost.
And the children of the wealthy were exposed to the sort of diversity that helped educate them about the realities of their fellow citizens, thereby creating a sense of community across the social strata, which contributed towards social cohesion.
Education is one of the most successful mechanisms for bridging the gap between societal differences and the rich and the poor. Societies that allow these gaps to grow wider are digging their own graves.
It was the ancient Greek historian Plutarch who said that: “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.”
That ailment is now deeply rooted. President Yoweri Museveni decided to swallow the IMF’s “structural adjustment” poisonous pill and embark on a programme of privatisation, foreign investment and public spending cuts which has consistently denied crucial funding to publicly-run schools but encouraged corruption to flourish giving birth to a business driven form of schooling in Uganda.
Government officials and their rich friends today send their children abroad to be educated or to the private schools that started emerging as public provision deteriorated.
The former head of the IMF, Michel Camdessus, once said that “the widening gaps between rich and poor within nations” is “morally outrageous, economically wasteful and potentially socially explosive”.
By allowing millions of Ugandan children to struggle without “adequate educational opportunities” which are only available to the well-off, Uganda’s rulers have creating the conditions that inflame social tensions that will inevitably explode.
So the options are stark and clear. The NRM can continue down the path of “separate development” in which the best facilities are available to a tiny few, but must be prepared to reap the whirlwind when the resentment and tensions reach boiling point.
Or they can remember their constitutional obligations and invest in our public schools and create adequate educational opportunities for all according to merit and not ability to pay.
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