By Emmanuel Angoda
In September 2021, the government released a list of beneficiaries of the undergraduate government scholarship scheme under National Merit. The list was long (about 3,000) and it followed the same trend of about two decades now.
As it is now, there is absolutely no doubt that the current government scholarships, especially national merit scheme, is flawed and unfair. This year, only 243 of A-Level schools had their students admitted, meaning that 1,709 A-Level schools did not have a single student admitted. In Lango Sub-region, for example, only 3 students were admitted—St. Katherine S. S (01), Mentor S. S (01) and Light Vocational S.S.
In Muni University, 76 were admitted, Lira University got 77, Busitema University got 89 students, and Gulu University got 125 students. What is common in all these four universities is that the students coming to study there under government scholarship are from Kampala and Wakiso schools.
For example, in Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery in Gulu University, there was no student from any school in Acholi Sub-region, and this has been the case for very many years. This ultimately means that, since all schools in Acholi are incapable of competing for government scholarships (under national merit), parents have to enroll them to A-Level in top schools in Kampala /Buganda region.
What then happens to the children of the poor? What has happened to our traditional schools in Acholi, Lango, and Teso? It is easy to see that the current system is capitalist and mostly benefits children of the rich.
Considering that northern Uganda went through the 20 years of Lord’s Resistance Army war which significantly affected education and other social and economic aspects of life, it is time to consider a kind of affirmative action for the region, focusing on education.
There have been several interventions in northern Uganda, such as NUSAF, but there has been no project specifically focused on restoring the education standards to acceptable levels. I suggest that the government sets up a special scholarship scheme for only areas affected by the LRA war, much in the same way NUSAF works.
Without this kind of special intervention, many brilliant youths will waste away in the villages, not because they are unable to get admitted to university. It is because they are unable to meet the current high scholarship cutoff points, or meet the stringent eligibility requirements for loan scheme. According to data, both government scholarships (under national merit) and loan scheme take a disproportionally high number of beneficiaries from one region.
This continued trend, therefore, needs the intervention of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), that is mandated to “take affirmative action in favour of groups marginalised on the basis of gender, age, disability or any other reason created by history, tradition or custom for the purpose of redressing imbalances which exist against them, and to provide for other related matters.”
I strongly believe that the eligibility criteria for government scholarships needs to be responsive to the needy, but poor students. Considering only academic performance has not only encouraged meaningless pursuit for marks (and extensive exam cheating), instead of real learning, it has also deepened social inequality between the rich, whose children are not needy but get scholarships, and the poor, who are needy but have no chance of getting the scholarships.
I am a beneficiary of two scholarships, one at the undergraduate level and the other at postgraduate level. I must declare here that throughout school, I have been moderately bright, just above average, always among the best, but not the best. In both scholarships, high marks were just one of the requirements, besides other social, economic and personal attributes that scholarship committee or funder looks at.
Several scholarship initiatives such as the MasterCard Foundation, Chevening, Fulbright, DAAD, and many others, consider a wide range of issues from applicants, without placing a premium in high marks. This is not to downplay or discourage students from working hard to obtain high marks.
What I am saying is that, as it is now, only a very small number of the poor, vulnerable and needy are benefiting from both the government scholarship and loan schemes, partly due to the way it has been structured. We need a new structure, that will democratize education opportunities for all, and create an inclusive society.
This article was first published on Daily Monitor: https://www.monitor.co.ug/uganda/oped/letters/govt-scholarships-northern-uganda-needs-affirmative-action-3607880