A lot of water has flown under the bridge regarding whether our education system is a tool for poverty eradication and wealth creation.
The major questions are: Whether our education system in the current form facilitates the creation of wealth? Or is educating our children contributing to more household impoverishment especially given the pervasive high unemployment of graduates. In order to answer these complex questions, we need to understand the following:
Content of our education:
We have argued before and still contend that our education content in Uganda is largely detached from the reality, particularly regarding the private sector economic environment. The structure and content of our education system have largely remained the way they were framed by the British Colonial State. The post-independence systems have done little to change the structure and content of the education system in Uganda.
The irony, however, is that while there has been no major change in structure and content of education system in Uganda, the economy has experienced radical changes. This paradox has created the need for change in the education system lest, the education we are giving our children will render them (children) uncompetitive in the new economic environment.
What have been the major changes in the economy?
It is glaringly clear that, the immediate post-independence period in Uganda was characterised by the centrality of the state in the running of the economy. The public sector was involved in economic activities such as transport (Uganda Airlines, Uganda Transport Company); retail business (Foods and Beverages); other service sectors (Uganda Hotels, Uganda Commercial Banks and National Insurance Corporation among others).
During the 1980s and 1990s, the Ugandan government adopted IMF liberalisation policies, which saw the divestiture of government from running these enterprises.
The philosophy driving the privatisation of enterprises was that "it was untenable to run public sector enterprises by people whose entire attitude, orientation and predisposition were essentially private". It was further contended that since people were greedy and private in nature, how can they be trusted to run public corporations? This argument was debated in Parliament and Cabinet and the Government succeeded in privatising most parastatals.
The major assumption of the divestiture and subsequent privatisation of public enterprises was that the Government was not "a good businessman". That the Government owned corporations lacked efficiency and business acumen, which are on the other hand, the "hall mark" in the private sector. Other arguments were premised on assumption that the private sector is highly efficient, more competitive and, therefore, capable of solving the unemployment problem. Let's analyse these assumptions from empirical data.
The current youth unemployment in Uganda stands at 83%. For every 8,000 job seekers, there is only 50 jobs available indicating that for every 160 jobs, only one can get employed!! Paradoxically, all these job seekers are graduates of mainly tertiary institutions. Where is the problem? It is evidently clear that in as much as the private sector has grown; its potential to create employment has been constrained by a number of factors namely:
a) The growth of the private sector has been much slower than the rate of growth of the population (3.2%) per annum and the subsequent increase in demand for employment.
b) The unemployable graduates. It is apparent that most graduates from our tertiary institutions are unemployable. They hold knowledge that is at variance with what is required by the private sector. As I have counseled before, in Uganda, we are not lacking educated people but I am not sure whether the private sector and the job market (even self-employment) require the kind of education held by our graduates. We seem to have large numbers of "schooled" people but who lack what I call "distinctive capabilities" that make them competitive in a liberal economy like the Ugandan one.
What is the cause of this irony?
Our educational institutions are delinked from the private sector. There is no linkage between what is required in the economy and what business goes on in training institutions. This is the greatest contradiction of our education and training system. If the training institutions are not privy to what knowledge and skills are required in the economy, then how does one justify the entire training process?
What then do we do?
We do not need to invent any new wheels. What countries such as the East Asian Tigers did to create wealth and transform their economies was to link their education and training with their needs for economic transformation. All education institutions (whether government or privately owned) were aligned to the national vision, objectives and strategies for transformation of their economies.
Practically, no school is licensed to teach any subject unless that subject is directly linked to national objectives of industrialising the economy and increasing the country's economic competiveness. These policies have been implemented so well in these countries and of course the rest is history.
For China, it is even more interesting. What the government did was to have an education system that directly creates wealth. This was done through the introduction of what is called a "Duo Qualification Model" of education and training. The Chinese allowed its young people to undertake formal education just as we do here in Uganda but in addition, all students must offer and practice an artisanship course where a certificate is also awarded simultaneously.
For example, you find an economist, medical doctor or lawyer who also has a qualification in metal fabrication, ceramics, plumbing, electronics or carpentry and joinery. This is the famous "Duo Qualification Framework in China". The aim of this model is to ensure and make it mandatory that every graduate, at whatever level, has a skill one can apply to eke out a living. It is largely this education model that has propelled China as a leading exporter of virtually all goods in the world market.
This is because almost everyone has a skill to produce something. Therefore, China does not only have educated people but highly competitive individuals who possess skills that make them highly distinctive and extremely productive. Germany has traditionally followed the same approach. After attaining an equivalent of Senior 2, here in Uganda, every German must attend technical training course where various skills are inculcated.
After the training, many Germans prefer to become mechanics as they find it very lucrative compared to pursuing only formal education. It is largely this phenomenon that saved Germany from sliding economic quagmire like other PIGS.
Germany is the 4st largest economy in the world and the largest in Europe. The only reason is because of high tech goods produced by Germany (Mercedes among others). These goods are not produced by highly educated people but individuals who have amassed the high tech skills. Is there anyone who does not want to ride in a Germany made car on one's wedding day?
What is the problem of Uganda in this regard?
The main problem in Uganda is the traditional attitude of formal elitist Education that shuns technical training. In Uganda, vocational skills are perceived as suitable for those who fail in formal education. Success in education is measured by speaking the English, and scoring highly in all the academic subjects as bequethered to us at independence. During our time of "O" level examinations, one could not be graded with a 1st grade unless one had passed English!
This is too ironical because in many countries, such as China, people speak their local languages and even at universities use local language in school instruction. At the University of Dar es Salam, teaching can be conducted in Swahili. I attended a graduation ceremony at the University of Dar es Salaam and all proceedings were conducted in Swahili. This was excellent because everybody followed what was going on.
What needs to be done in Uganda?
Times have changed and we need to respond accordingly. We need to adopt the "Duo Qualification" Model of education, make our children skilled, increase their competiveness and cultivate distinctive capability. We must also develop a positive attitude for our children to appreciate their culture. These shall be the master key to have education as a tool to wealth creation.
The writer is an International Development Consultant and Winner of International ward for significant contribution to World Society.