Why Uganda’s education system fosters inequality

Mr Moses Odokonyero, who finds time to submit commentaries to this newspaper, recently reiterated a truism about Uganda’s discriminatory education system. He stated: “Uganda’s education has expanded in quantity and shrunk in quality in the last 30 years. It has expanded in quality for the oligarch class and its branches and shrunk in quality for the peasants.”

And he noted: “Education is one of ways the poor can wriggle out of poverty. But this is only if education is not a hotbed where class differences are entrenched.”

This means we must use education as a tool for rooting out inequality in our society. It is the fact of Uganda’s high “power distance” in regard to the relationship between the ruling class and the masses that bothers many of us.
What is power distance? It is a concept that was popularised by Geert Hofstede, a Dutch social psychologist, to describe how people belonging to a specific culture view superiorsubordinate power relationships. Our society – where individuals, especially illiterate peasants, show trust, respect, admiration and obedience to figures of authority – has a high power distance.

On the contrary, societies where people readily question authority and demand inclusion in decision-making processes affecting their lives, have low power distance. For us, even when we see clearly how power is spread unequally in our society, we don’t care.

Consciously or unconsciously, we accept the status quo because, as the Ateso saying goes, Akiro akwap kana ikote nepenen. (That’s how the world is.)

Over the last three decades, what we have seen happening is an alarming widening of the gap – in terms of income and general socio-economic wellbeing – between people at the top echelon of our society and those below them. And education is a major divider.

Our different education tracks basically guarantee that rich people who send their children to academies for pre-primary and primary schooling, exclusive private secondary schools and top universitiestertiary institutions here and abroad will pass riches to their children. Poor folks will pass poverty to their kids by sending them to UPE schools and ill-equipped public secondary schools. (It is miraculous if they can get to universitiestertiary institutions.)
Yet our secondary education was once the ultimate equal opportunity provider. Odokonyero’s poor father from Acholi, studied at St Mary’s College, Kisubi – “an elite boys’ school” – while the late Internal Affairs minister Aronda Nyakairima from Rukungiri studied in Kitgum.

This reminds me of my old school, Busoga College Mwiri. I can rapidly name three of its former head prefects – from different backgrounds – who reached pinnacles of public life. Apollo Milton Obote, who received the instruments of our independence from Britain in 1962, was in Mwiri in the late 1940s. The current premier, Ruhakana Rugunda, was there in the late 1960s. And Justice Fredrick Egonda-Ntende, who even served as Chief Justice of Seychelles from 2009-2014, was head prefect in 1974 when I joined Senior One.

Back then, solid government investment in public schools gave learners leadership and other skills and opened their eyes to important matters of problem-solving and critical thinking.

Increasing teachers’ pay to Shs1m, as Dr Kizza Besigye proposes, is not the best way we can salvage our public education system. We must begin by reversing the very flawed policies of privatisation and deregulation (removing government regulations).
We are not rich or poor because God created us so rather, we took a wrong path to development.

Dr Okodan is a lecturer at Kampala International University.


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