The old UNEB has been replaced by uncertainty

By: Karoli Ssemogerere

For a lazy Saturday afternoon, this one was colourless. Expending energy on a deadline with minutes to spare for lunch, I took some mild interest in the conversation at the next table. Two gentlemen and a younger charge were commenting on the saga unfolding at Uganda National Examination Board (Uneb). Uneb administers national exams to boys and girls in the 7th grade, 11th grade and 13th grade as they transition to universities and other tertiary institutions of education. They also administer technical exams at the equivalent of 11th and 13th grade.

The national examination body is almost 40, a successor entity to the former East African Examinations Board. The Uneb brand has only had two executive secretaries: DL. Ongom, who served through the 1990s and Mathew Bukenya who has presided over the ‘expanded Uneb’ where student rolls are several hundred thousand each year. Thirty years ago, Uneb reported about 60,000 Primary Leaving Examination (PLE) candidates. O-Level was about 40,000 candidates and A-Level one third of this number of whom 25 per cent were absorbed into Makerere University.

The picture in 2014 is very different. Uneb still serves the majority of Ugandan schools but is one of several service providers in the school industry. Uneb’s role is that of a ‘national assessment’ body with little real authority to direct schools on how to prepare students for national exams. The examination body has a contract to deliver exams to South Sudan and provides services to “opt-out students” who sit foreign exams should they choose to attend Ugandan institutions of higher learning.

2014 is of grave concern, almost reaching national security proportions. First was the announcement at the beginning of the year that the government had run out of money to pay examination proctors or markers. In 2013, teachers showed a new assertiveness on issues of pay.

In the old days, being selected to mark national exams was a professional privilege, not a financial privilege. The elite ranks of inspectors of schools and national examiners were culled from these teachers. Once one of them showed up, even the hallowed headmaster would be on his toes. Many have since passed on, HB Kakooza – Mathematics, Levi Matovu – History and Social Studies, among others, carried this stature of “being in charge”.

By failing to pay, Uneb was having trouble recruiting enough marking staff for O and A-Level scripts. Questions arose on how the scripts would be moved unmarked to new venues for marking. The gentlemen predicted either the quality of the marking would irreparably suffer or Uneb would have to rely on other means to report grades.

The era of tight secrecy and anonymity that Mr Bukenya represents is obviously incompatible with the ‘Snowden time’ we live in today of Facebook, Twitter-verse and other social media. In the 1990s when examination leakages had become rife, Mr Bukenya simply sub-contracted printing of scripts to Catholic nuns at the Marianum Press. Today, that is vainly impossible.

In the news last week was Fagil Mandy lamenting that exam results would delay – not because of the official Shs4 billion shortage to pay markers but due to breakdown of an optical scanner used to scan examination results into the main-frame computer system. Uneb reports in a database that uses indices and codes depending on what subjects the candidate attempts. This number is recorded on the cover of each booklet and page. It is not very different from the legendary payroll but mistakes happen from time to time. Scanning, however, reduces the risk of manual entries and in this lies the integrity of the system.

Mr Mandy, a political activist and former central government representative, was quickly dressed down by Mr Bukenya. Mr Bukenya berated his board chairman for thinking an optical scanner could even break down. “Technically it cannot break down,” ended the zinger.

Mandy is a respected teacher, aggressive but generally well intentioned. He has been sorting through another mess – that of replacing Mr Bukenya whose name is still prominently displayed on the Uneb web site, Mandy, a cadre to the bone, has been accused of handpicking the winning candidate(s) – a problem that may have forced his boss, Education minister Jessica Alupo to forward eight names to the President to pick a final name.

It seems my lunch-mates had something to say about this as well. But with Mr Bukenya steadfastly focused on servicing than repairing the scanner, and Mr Mandy wondering aloud who was leaking correspondence to and from the IGG, we had another perfect Ugandan bureaucratic battle. Only this time, PLE, UCE and UACE are on the table as well.

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