Africa We Want

EDUCATION: Foreign varsities reject Ugandan degree

A British university rejects a Ugandan graduate on grounds that the National Council for Higher Education had already classified the course they qualified in as “expired”, and an expert in Kampala warns such degrees across programmes and institutions are “null and void”. By Damali Mukhaye & Lydia Felly Akullu

Graduands during a past graduation ceremony at Makerere University. PHOTO | FILE

The future of thousands of current students and recent graduates at Ugandan universities is danger after it emerged that courses they are pursuing, or completed, are “expired”. An expired or invalid course, in this case, is a degree or diploma programme not duly accredited for teaching by the National Council for Higher Education (NCHE), the sector statutory regulator.

Such qualifications, said one highly placed source, are “legally and technically null and void”.

The crisis has come to the fore after the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom reportedly declined to admit an alumna of Makerere University, who had studied a Bachelor of Biomedical Laboratory Technology, to pursue an advanced degree.

“We accept applicants with a Bachelor’s degree from a Ugandan university with programme accreditation, we use the NHCE website …,” an official of the University of Bristol wrote in reply to the Uganda applicant.

The letter added: “The entry for the Bachelor of Biomedical Laboratory for Makerere University indicates that this programme was accredited on March 26, 2010 to March 26, 2015 and it expired in 2015. As you graduated in 2018 after the programme accreditation expired, we are therefore unable to accept your qualification.”

Ms Shamim Nambassa, a pharmacist and Makerere University’s 87th guild president, who shared the University of Bristol email on twitter yesterday declined to disclose the identity of the rejected applicant, citing confidentiality and risk of stigmatisation.

“Graduates of @Makerere are missing out on various opportunities because the courses they studied expired and their accreditation hasn’t been renewed,” Ms Nambassa tweeted, calling for “as soon as possible” resolution of the glitch.

It is not only Makerere, Uganda’s oldest and largest public university, in trouble.

Our analysis of the statuses of various academic programmes tenable at Uganda’s public and private universities listed on NCHE website https://unche.or.ug/all-academic-programs/ showed that almost all are at fault, meaning the degrees they awarded or plan to award to graduates who enlisted as students after the courses expired are invalid.

Section 119A and the accompanying statutory instrument oblige degree-awarding institutions to ensure that they, alongside their academic programmes, are accredited by the regulator.

Our count, however, indicates that up to 2,260 courses being taught at the 47 public and private universities expired eight to a dozen years ago, raising questions as to why the institutions elected not to comply.

At 159, Makerere University has the highest number of courses categorised on NCHE website as “invalid”, followed by Bugema and Bishop Stuart universities, tied at 63, Kabale University (59), Busitema (28), and Mbarara University of Science and Technology or MUST (34).

Others include Cavendish University (34), Uganda Christian University (UCU), Makerere University Business Schools or Mubs (25), Mountains of the Moon University in Fort Portal (18), All Saints University Lango (14), Ankole Western University (4), and Avance International University (5).

Only international universities; Aga Khan University, Apex International University and Clark University, appeared unaffected.

Prof Mary Okwakol, the executive director of NCHE, was unavailable yesterday to comment on the revelations that some senior educationists have said has a wide-ranging impact on students, graduates, parents/guardians and other education stakeholders.

A senior Council official who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak on the matter, said graduates of “expired” courses will have challenges with their qualifications, including ineligibility to use them to enroll for advanced degrees or seek jobs.

“Students who undertook the courses before they expired are safe. Those who graduated with or are offering courses that are expired might have their qualifications not recognised,” the source said.

A scholar knowledgeable about the process and vitality of accreditation of academic programmes in Uganda was blunt.

“It simply means degrees awarded from programme that are not accredited by NCHE are null and void … universities need to do the right thing and only advertise to admit students on courses that are accredited. It is illegal to do otherwise,” the academic noted, asking not to be named to speak freely on the matter.

Parliament established NCHE by an Act principally to implement the Universities and Other Tertiary Institutions Act, 2001, assigning it the mandate to guide on the establishment of institutions of higher learning, their licensing and accreditation as well as accreditation of their academic programmes.

The statutory regulator ranks programmes at universities on its website in three categories: “expired”, meaning unaccredited; “active”, meaning authorised to be taught; and “under review”, implying accreditation decision pending.

Undergraduate and graduate programmes declared “expired” at various institutions straddle humanities and sciences, among them, law, mass communications, business administration, civil and building engineering, biochemistry, and human medicine.

Majority of these were accredited for five years from March 2010, or earlier, meaning they should have been reviewed and re-accredited by or before early 2015.

Sources familiar with the process intimated to this newspaper that an institution intending to teach a particular academic programme submits a proposal to NCHE.

The Council then bases its approval on conformity of specified admission criteria to the law, suitability of the course components to fulfil knowledge and skill requirement for intended academic award and whether staffing, facilities and equipment are adequate.

According to another source, the degree programmes are to be regularly reviewed, in this case every five years, to incorporate any new knowledge or technology likely to affect delivery of teaching and learning. Reviews also aim at ensuring staff level often affected by brain drain, further studies and death are commensurate to the course requirements.

It is also to inspect whether available facilities correspond to enrolment on the programme, but the rule book is that universities promptly stop admitting new students once the accreditation lapses, according to a subject specialist.

In an interview yesterday, the chairperson of the Board of NCHE, Prof Eli Katunguka, who also doubles as the vice chancellor of Kyambogo University that is affected by the “expired” courses crisis, said some institutions failed to re-accredit programmes because the exercise is expensive.

He said every course unit under a programme is accredited at Shs700, 000, meaning a degree programme with ten units costs Shs7m to be accredited, money he said is hard for universities to find.

“Kyambogo University applied for review of 74 programmes and we are required to pay Shs60m.Where shall we get all this money?” he said.

Every university student pays Shs20,000 in what is meant as their annual contributions to NCHE, and it remained unclear how the universities can then fail to muster required resources for accreditation.

One senior educationist, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to avoid reprisal, said the lapse to accredit programmes likely had much less to do with cash than the laissez-faire attitude of administrators.

“The university administrators just feel that they are the big boys in higher education [delivery] in the country and that nothing will happen to them, even if they don’t comply with the law. They think NCHE will do nothing,” the source said, adding that they are now being woken up because international institutions have started rejecting their products.

Prof Barnabas Nawangwe, the vice chancellor of Makerere University, said they had scrapped most of the programmes that the regulator presently lists as “expired”, although a few are still running.

“We are doing everything possible to address this challenge so that our graduates are not disadvantaged by a few universities in Europe that insist on using the NCHE website to confirm accreditation,” he said, adding, “Generally most of the other universities consider the accreditation of the university and not the programmes and our graduates have not experienced any challenges with admission to graduate programmes at those universities.”

MUST Vice Chancellor, Prof Celestino Obua, yesterday deflected blame on the higher education regulator, accusing it of failing to accredit programmes submitted for approval two or so years ago.

“So, if the National Council has not updated their website, then the problem is theirs, not us,” he said.

NCHE and accrediting institutions, courses

Parliament established the National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) by an Act principally to implement the Universities and Other Tertiary Institutions Act, 2001.

Its core mandate is to guide on the establishment of institutions of higher learning and guarantee provision of high quality education at universities and tertiary institutions.

NCHE executes its work through five committees, one of which is on accreditation and quality assurance. Among the Council’s functions, according to information on its website, is receiving, considering and processing applications for “the accreditation of the academic and professional programmes …”It is also responsible for licensing and accrediting both public and private universities, tertiary institutions and other degree-awarding institutions.

An institution that intends to offer a particular academic programme applied to NCHE, setting out the specifics and NCHE evaluates the worthiness of the programme by examining the key courses, whether the admission requirements are in conformity with the law and whether requisite staff, facilities and equipment exist at the institution to deliver effective programme knowledge and learning.

NCHE does this by deploying an inspection team whose findings inform grant or denial of licensing or accreditation. The law makes review of academic programmes at universities mandatory to accommodate new knowledge or ideas of teaching, incorporation of technological changes and ensure requisite staffing and facilities/equipment are in place commensurate to enrolment .

A programme not submitted and re-accredited after the lapse of a preceding accreditation becomeS invalid and the respective institution should, under the law, immediately cease admitting new students or graduating them on such programmes because the academic awards will not recognised elsewhere.

Section 119A of the Universities and Other Tertiary Institutions Act, 2001, provided: “For the avoidance of doubt, no person shall operate a university, other degree-awarding institution or a tertiary institution without the prior accreditation of its academic and professional programmes by the National Council for Higher Education.”

Expiry of a programme in this case is not related to the date of graduation, but date of enrolment.

Similarly, Prof George Openjuru, the vice chancellor of Gulu University, suggested that the NCHE list that has caused tremors is antiquated.

“There are no expired [academic] programmes at Gulu University. They are supposed to update and not just keep [old] records. They are embarrassing us,” he said.

Prof Mouhamad Mpezamihigo, the vice chancellor of Kampala International University, dozens of whose programmes are listed as “expired”, said “the issue of the expiration of academic programmes is really a misunderstood concept”.

“Accreditation of a programme means that the institution has fulfilled the requirements and you are given five years. After five years, it does not mean that the programme has expired, but it can be reviewed,” he said.

Like Kyambogo’s Katunguka, he revealed that universities have engaged the regulator that the five-year lease life for accredited courses is too short and should be extended to at least a decade.

However, Prof Mpezamihigo’s claim that a programme remains valid past accreditation expiration period appeared to fly in the face of the law.

An expert explained that manpower at institutions are often depleted by poaching, retirement, death or brain drain, meaning that over a period of time, universities have less competence to teach courses they were previously cleared to offer.

The competing claims notwithstanding, Mr Bernard Oundo, the president of Uganda Law Society, which advises government and public entities on matters legal, last evening put responsibility for the costly omissions and commissions on universities.

“The liability lies with the universities for not doing due diligence because it’s their obligation to teach courses that are valid and approved by the regulator, the NCHE,” he told this newspaper by telephone.

The “impact is big”, one academic said, referring to the lapse of universities teaching expired programme, “but there will be a political solution”.

Officials of the Ministry of Education, which oversees the education sector, were unavailable by press time to speak to how the affected institutions could dig themselves out of the dark hole, which opens them to possible litigation by disaffected students and graduates.

Mr Lawrence Alionzi, the immediate past Makerere University guild president, said “those who graduated are the ones who suffer the direct impact of this issue as they are denied scholarship opportunities when they try to apply outside Uganda”.

“Many students raised these concerns after their applications were denied in South Africa. The University’s Academic [Registrar’s Office] did not make this issue a priority. So, in my view the university has a fair blame,” he said.

He added: “I think the National Council [for Higher Education] has a problem. They do not give this matter a priority. There is some kind of reluctance with the Council.”

Author: MANZI
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