The recent pronouncement to have the new quota system for university admissions based on district populations provoked strong opposition. The bone of contention is about how it evens the privileged districts with their disadvantaged counterparts across the country.
University quotas were adopted in 2005/06 as a corrective mechanism, to enable qualified students from disadvantaged secondary schools to enroll at public universities on government scholarship. The move grew out of the recognition that the trend of admission to public universities tended towards students from privileged schools as manifested by their A-level scores. Government revisited the scheme, which originally allotted eight slots for each district and has now settled for population-based quotas.
From the debate, the disgruntlement with the new quota system boils down to the marginalisation that the system exacerbates for the already underserved districts. In particular, critics argue that the system will not allow districts like Gulu, Kitgum and Pader which have had unstable population cope with other districts. For me, the inadequacy attributed to the quota system lends itself to shortcomings along the “conveyor belt.”
As much as the quota system serves to redress imbalances of the past, it should be acknowledged that the arrangement itself is premised on disparities that have been reinforcing themselves at each stage of the educational pipeline. That quotas will exacerbate the marginalisation of the already disadvantaged is only a reflection of inequalities within our education set up. This is the spotlight to which our attention should be turned as we explore ways of addressing the imbalance of opportunity right from the base of the educational pyramid.
The blemish of the merit-based system of admitting students to public universities which informed the quota system was that it skewed enrollment towards the already advantaged. By considering A-Level grades as the basis for admission, students from well-resourced church founded and private secondary schools were in good stead to beat the fierce competition for state scholarships.
As a fact, students in such schools profit from applied experience of experiments, text books, stable teachers, extra opportunities for learning in form of study tours. It is, therefore, not difficult for such learners to outshine their counterparts in remote schools characterised by dismal deprivation. Not surprising, as enrollment patterns indicate, that most of Uganda’s engineers, architects, doctors from Makerere over the last decade have been products of schools like Budo, Kisubi, Gayaza and Namugongo.
Thus, much as we laud the accelerated access to primary and secondary education, a sharp divide persists in the circumstances prevailing across schools. This not only isolates a number of schools but also puts them at an appalling disadvantage, narrowing recruitment bases for university. More so, as this rift relegates the underrepresented, the prospects of the already favoured are reproduced from one level of the education system to another, from secondary to university.
Although the university quota system was conceived to enhance opportunities for those marginalised by the merit-based admissions criteria, it is not the starting point to remedy disparities in the system. Rather than passing judgment on the new quota system, it is time to re-examine the education set up as a whole and crystallise ways of promoting opportunity at all levels so as to render higher education more inclusive.
The existing landscape presents a screen for students from disadvantaged schools to access opportunities for higher education let alone benefitting from state sponsorship. It is these forms of exclusion that have to be systematically tackled right from the base through to the pinnacle so as to widen opportunities for university education across socio-economic and geographic disparities in Uganda. Investing in the “software” and “hardware” of underserved schools is the foundation for paving the otherwise gruelling terrain that young Ugandans from Amuru, Bududa, Amudat, among others, have to tread to earn a university degree subsidised by the public purse.
Mr. Kaheru works with the Association for the Advancement of Higher Education and Development firstname.lastname@example.org