How to fix Uganda's education system

On the 15th of February, New Vision, the country’s biggest newspaper, published an article to clarify the matters around the closing down of Bridge Academies in Uganda.

Bridge is an investor and innovator in the education sector and has gained much attention through its backing by Silicon Valley giants like the founder of Facebook, as well as its wholesale approach to cheap, private education in Africa.

I don’t know much about the details of the Bridge case in Uganda, but the article was an illustration of the crisis the education sector in Uganda is in.

Below I add my own views and experiences, as well as clear ideas on how the education sector could be turned around to being the fuel for business development and growth in Uganda.

Life skills

After having spent more than 12 years working with people all over Africa, from poor rural communities to high tech private sector companies, it becomes more and more clear to me that the key to the development of a country is the development of its people.

As much as African countries need infrastructure and services, only a population that is empowered and instructed will use its ingenuity to use this infrastructure for something productive. So many times I have seen a lack of education is a major inhibition for a community or a person to develop, despite goodwill and efforts by NGOs and donors.

I mean education in a broader sense than what you learn in a classroom; the NGO lingo prefers to give it labels like “life skills”. Education understood in this way includes the basic understanding of cause and effect, sense of responsibility, the consciousness of time and history, but in short: the skills needed to thrive and grow in a capitalist society.

For Uganda is in a global village where development is measured through on capitalist indicators of growth, profit, efficiency and productivity.

Precisely in a capitalist economy, the power of education could have such a potential, especially in a country like Uganda.

With one of the largest “young” populations in the world, Uganda should take its investment in the next generation seriously and even use this as a way of gaining a comparative advantage over its neighbouring countries. Uganda once used to have good schools and universities, Makerere University was lauded as one of the best on the continent.

Unfortunately, short-term thinking and the inability of government (for whatever reason) to accommodate innovation and foreign investors like Bridge will continue to result in a sluggish growth rate.

The paradox of unemployment and the skills gap in Uganda

Having worked for a private company in the IT and tech sector for the last four years, I have seen first-hand how the shortcomings of the education system have a crushing effect on economic and social development.

The Norwegian IT company I work for, Laboremus, is out-sourcing software programming services to the Norwegian market. Demand for the services in Norway has been high, but the company has struggled to grow.

One of the main reasons has been a tremendous effort it takes to train young and talented Ugandans to deliver software at an international level. On average, a very talented graduate needs two years at Laboremus before being able to work on European projects.

Even after years of experience in Uganda, I was taken aback by the inadequate level of education that Ugandan graduates get throughout the schooling system.

As Chairperson of the Nordic Business Association for two years, and frequently in forums with investors and entrepreneurs, my complaints are echoed by everyone: human resources issues are the biggest headaches and inhibitors of growth.

This is a paradox in a country where unemployment is high and competition for the few formal jobs is fierce. Everyone agrees that talent is abound in Uganda, but the skills given by the education system to translate this talent into productivity, reliability, professionalism, customer care and quality is terrifyingly absent.

Focus on theoretical learning from an early age, “cramming”, big classes with little interaction and a curriculum and pedagogic approach that punishes questioning, creativity, curiosity and play have a profound effect.

Students are expected to sit down, be quiet, follow every wink of the teacher, learn everything by heart and then reproduce it in an exam. Yet as soon as these young people leave school or university, they face an employment market where employers value people who are problem solvers, team workers, have people skills, are innovative, entrepreneurial and so on.

In addition to fostering these important qualities, the curricula are also tremendously outdated. If at least all the cramming resulted in a solid theoretical foundation, our task as employers would be easier.

Especially in the fast-moving (but increasingly important) IT sector this is flagrantly evident. As one of our employees put it: One day he entered the university class and the teacher wrote XHTML on the board. He had just started to teach himself HTML5. He walked out of that classroom and never turned back.

Without a formal bachelor’s degree, he is one of our best programmers today. Generally, Laboremus does not hunt for talent in the software engineering or computer science departments at the universities, we instead focus on the engineering streams because this is where you find people with enough capabilities in math and abstract thinking. That in itself should say something about the adequacy of the curricula.


Early childhood education

Last but not least, the education system does not provide the nurturing that young people need to grow into mature, responsible and self-confident adults.

This is often described by employers and teachers as a “poor attitude” in the youth today, and manifests itself through a lack of loyalty, lack of commitment, inability to take advantage of an opportunity and other poor habits like stealing, fraudulent practices and “corruption”. This all goes back to the adults that these young people grow up around.

Through my work with Fontes Foundation, we established a youth development centre where we try to primarily work on the “attitudes” of the youth to make them ready to be employed or become entrepreneurs.

The programme includes personal development classes that work on people’s self-confidence, direction and interaction with others, a mentorship programme and a job-placement programme. In essence, we are trying to give the young people in six months what many of them did not get their entire childhood.

At Laboremus, we work with many of the same issues with our university graduates, who have had a much more advantageous background than the disadvantaged youth in the Fontes programme.

In a country where a large majority of children come from rural households where the older generation only had limited education, more responsibility is put on the institutions to provide the youngsters with role models and adults that can provide career guidance, personal guidance and teach children all they need to know about their health, sexuality, relationships, talents and last but not least, strong values and culture.

Yet children are taught in classes where there is no room or time to cater for individual development problems or needs, often (still) using cruel methods of discipline and by teachers who are more concerned about their own survival or the next PLE exam than developing each child into a successful adult.

The result of these deficiencies on both the part of the parents and the education system is that employers are left with the burden of not only teaching their employees their trade, which most are willing to do but also to provide guidance, personal development and communication skills.

This takes time and a huge investment from the part of the employer, who is constantly faced with the risk of the employee leaving for greener pastures as soon as an opportunity with a slightly higher salary presents itself. Employers must also pay the employee a salary during the training period, during which the employee is not adding much value to the company.

And on top of that, employers are taxed up to 43% of salaries (28% PAYE and 15% NSSF) to provide education and training that is ideally the responsibility of the government. Seen from this perspective, the poor results of the tertiary education system are in fact a socio-economic tragedy: young people spend three years of their most creative years but rarely recall more than experiments with alcohol, partying and sugar daddies from this time.

Parents break their backs to pay for expensive university fees, often by selling cows and land or taking expensive loans. Yet after three years, after all this investment, the results are dismal.

The action plan

So what can be done to turn Uganda into a powerhouse of innovation, entrepreneurship and agriculture; a middle-income country as put by the country’s president?

First and foremost, the country needs to control its explosive population growth by making family planning available to all women in the country, along with sufficient information to use it properly.

This includes sensitisation of men and other family members, who often attempt control women’s fertility. Countries like Ethiopia have shown that it is possible to extend this even to remote rural societies. Rwanda can serve as a model in how to drastically reduce infant mortality and improve maternal health – these are also drivers of population growth.

Once fewer children are born to the households that are already resource-strained, more focus can be put on the development of each child.

Secondly, more emphasis needs to be put on early childhood development. It is commendable that Government wants to make early childhood learning centres available, however, this is partly barking up the wrong tree.

Most of the skills and knowledge pre-school children need is not related to reading and writing and should not be taught in classrooms. Mothers need guidance on how to foster the cognitive development of infants from an early stage.

Remarkable research from the US shows that the number of words spoken to a child in its early years is a great predicting factor for later academic success. Through village health workers and other community initiatives, parents should be taught about the importance of unconditional love to nurture a self-confident child, basic health knowledge and how to stimulate children’s curiosity, willingness to learn and motoric capabilities long before they set foot in a school.

Third, the mammoth task of reforming an education system stuck in Britain in the 1950s needs to get underway. This will take years, a profound shift in attitudes and strong leadership from the top.

One of the complaints about Bridge was that they take their teachers abroad for training. However, this is precisely what is needed: through seeking lessons and inspiration from other countries, Uganda has the unique opportunity to “leap-frog” much of the developed world and go straight into an approach that prepares the next generation for a world where robots compete with humans for jobs and subjects like IT and technology are key.

Tech founder Jack Ma said at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2018 that “If we don’t change the way we teach, in 30 years we will be in trouble [..] We need to teach something that is unique, [so] that a machine can never catch up with us”.

Educationalists worldwide agree that because of the speed at which technology advances, more emphasis must be put on giving the youth a solid foundation of concepts, principles, values and tools so that they can become “life-long learners”, instead of learning much content.

This includes giving the youth the skills to research, filter and analyse information, abstract thinking, problem-solving, concept development, visualisation and teamwork.

At Laboremus, we already have workshops tackling all these subjects for our employees. This includes less focus on theoretic university education for success, but the integration of a vocational system which produces high-quality technical professionals.

Let’s focus more on what is delivered in the schools, and how to get out from the aid-dependency trap that has also ensnared the minds. Well-enlightened teachers and students will themselves find solutions to the absence of tap water or sanitary pads in the schools.


Low-hanging fruit

While the reform of the curricula and teaching methods gets underway, there are three low hanging fruits that the Government can use to its advantage to reap short-term gains.

First, focus on the teachers. By drastically changing the way teachers are taught and restoring teaching as a prestigious profession, an impact will be felt already when these teachers set foot in their first classroom.

The article had many critics of the way Bridge uses tablets to guide teachers through their lessons. While this might be a little rigid and maybe not a long-term solution, it is an attempt to improve teaching at a scale that no government has until now achieved.

E-learning has a great potential and there are plenty of start-ups and e-learning initiatives. However, our experience with Fontes shows that teachers and students are not able to take advantage of the vast resources on the Internet if they are not given basic skills in how to navigate this wealth of information, or how to successfully use e-learning as a teaching aide.

Secondly, use the private schools as pioneers and trailblazers. Uganda’s best schools are private and private education is a huge business. Yet surprisingly, most of these schools are still stuck in the old ways of teaching.

A need to satisfy parents, who are the ones to pay the fees, could be one of the reasons why many of them prefer to have a “traditionalist” image. At the same time, these schools are better equipped and have more resources to effect changes quickly.

Bring a few of them on board and take lessons from the growing number of international schools who are trying out different types of curricula and teaching methods. Give these schools the freedom to innovate around curricula and methodologies, and change the metrics to assess the performance of students to incentivize schools to focus on the skills that are needed in tomorrow’s world.

And third, don’t penalize the private sector for investing in the training of their employees. Tax breaks for training periods, cheaper work permits for foreigners and cheaper business visas for experts would all support the tremendous efforts that employers are already making.

This would have benefits that are two-fold: first, employers would be able to hire and train more employees (about double, in fact) if taxes were slashed on training periods. Even if only one ends up in formal employment, the second one will leave with valuable skills to use elsewhere in the economy.

At Laboremus, we receive phone calls every day from students seeking internships. The last time we hired entry-level IT graduates, we received over 900 applications. We have tried different internships and trainee programmes, some even with donor support.

But all turned out to be too expensive for the company to make commercial sense. Yet, without building a pipeline of new talent, Laboremus is in a catch-22 situation: without more developers, we can’t make more money, but the developers take too much money to train.

Supporting the private sector in their training efforts would also attract much-needed foreign investors to set up shop and create employment in Uganda. Although the government is currently avoiding the Elephant in the room, soon youth unemployment will catch up with Uganda.

Problems such as crime are already on the rise and Uganda is showing much slower economic growth than neighbouring countries. With such a huge young population, it is virtually impossible for all employment creation and growth to come from within, especially with a poorly educated population. Whether we want it or not, Uganda will need investors like Bridge to bring in foreign money and skills to create the jobs needed.

Note: Lucrezia Biteete is the Head of Consulting at Laboremus Uganda. This article first appeared on Laboremus' blog and was republished with Lucrezia's permission. Photos are by Fontes Foundation & Laboremus Uganda Ltd

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