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Free Education Lifts Uganda's Development Position

Published on Monday 8th February 2010

Free primary and secondary education has lifted Uganda's ranking on the UN Human Development Index (HDI). The spike in the number of students, since the Universal Primary Education and Universal Secondary Education programmes was introduced, has contributed greatly to the country's improved global standing.

Although Uganda's ranking of 157 out of 182 countries is modest, the country has made improvements in life expectancy, degree of education (measured by adult literacy and gross enrolment in education) and standard of living.

Indeed, free education is one of the lasting achievements of President Museveni's government. However, the durability of the UPE and USE programmes is being stretched by big costs, an unacceptably high teacher-student ratio, teacher absenteeism and insufficient classroom space. Many have also questioned the quality of students going through the free education system. However, seasoned educationist and Makerere University Council boss Mr Mathew Rukikaire says: "A little education for the masses is better than no education at all."

Campaign promises

When President Museveni came good on a 2006 campaign pledge by introducing free secondary schooling in 2007, vast numbers of additional students were brought into the education system.

The number of secondary school going students shot by 33 percent, reflected in the absorption of some 250,000 new students. Three years on, the Ministry of Education says, there are more than half a million students currently studying under the Universal Secondary Education (USE) programme in some 1,471 schools.

However, questions continue to abound about the quality of basic education that is being provided to Ugandan children even as the government moves to offer new subsidies to cover education related costs.

A few days ago, President Museveni directed that examination fees at all public schools should be scrapped and likened the masterminds to "bugs sucking the blood of innocent people." In executing the order, the Ministry announced on Wednesday that government will start paying examination fees for USE students, the first batch sitting Senior Four this year.

It is this group who are the pioneer students of the free secondary schooling programme. Education Minister Geraldine Bitamazire told Education Guide on Saturday that the decision was inspired by the realisation that thousands of students were dropping out every year due to lack of exam fees. "When we started the programme we didn't realise that many parents actually didn't have money to pay for their children," she said. "We only realised later that up to 15per cent had dropped out for the last two years. That should have been the last reason for any children to drop out."

The minister said government would pay Shs 63,000 in exam fees for all the USE students this year who make the final cut to sit for the Uganda Certificate of Education exams. "We have budgeted for this money so we shouldn't have any drop outs," she added.

Last year alone, the government forked out more than Shs 30billion to finance the USE programme, a figure that is set to spike if you consider this latest subsidy. Technocrats are still working out exactly how much the government will payout because the number of students to register for this year's exams is yet to be known.

Enormous bill

But if all the 250,000 pioneer students make the cut, the government will be handed a bill of Shs 15.7 billion in exam fees. And Ms Bitamazire is in no doubt that the USE programme is on track. "We have enough schools and classrooms for this programme," said Ms Bitamazire. "We are in partnership with at least 3,000 secondary schools so those who don't go to the government-aided schools can go to the private ones. We are equipping these schools, staffing them and improving infrastructure." She called for more individual effort.

"Hard work pays. Going to a good school is not enough. Students must be disciplined, they must read hard. You cannot expect someone to come out well when they have missed a third of their classes; when they are abusing drugs and when they are undisciplined," she said.

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