By Okot Nyormoi, Editor, author of Burden of Failure, retired cell biologist

Okot Nyormoi

Education is generally regarded as the key to success in society. If so, why is it that there are so many unemployed educated youths in Uganda? What is the use of education if the educated cannot get jobs? What is wrong with the educational system? These are some of the questions which many parents and children ask.

The “go to” explanation for the high unemployment, lack of innovation or industrialization is a colonial legacy. It is all too easily argued that the educational system inherited from the colonialists was designed to serve the colonial government and not the colonized people. It is further explained that the inherited colonial educational system was designed to focus on the “what” rather than the “why” question or simply rote learning and not critical thinking. The recommended solution from the top down is that education should focus on the “why” question instead of the “what” question.

While colonialism deserves to be blamed for creating the educational system Uganda has inherited, it is hardly surprising that the system was not meant to serve the interest of the people of Uganda other than as implementers of the colonialists’ primary goal of reaping maximum profits at minimum costs. However, it is all too simplistic to reduce the nature of the youth unemployment problem to a mere failure to teach citizens to answer the “why” question. The problem is not just a simple binary choice between focusing on the “why”  vs the “what” question as some leaders have intimated.

The criticism of the colonial education system is that students are taught to memorize. If so, what exactly do they memorize? Memorization per se is not bad because there are many things which do not require complicated creative thoughts and yet they are required for performing a lot of essential functions in society. Moreover, innovations do not occur without the basic knowledge that is taught in schools today. However, it is only the very few among the many who will invent something spectacular and useful for society.

To blame high unemployment solely on the inherited colonial education system is simply a failure to critically analyze the nature of the problem. After all, despite its short comings, the system of education does produce many graduates in various fields at different levels who serve the country with distinction. Imagine what the country would be without the services of the locally trained nurses, doctors, teachers, medical technicians, accountants, lawyers, etc.

Can the system be improved? Of course. But, to make bashing the educational system a favorite pastime is a failure to recognize the chaff from the grain and a failure to acknowledge the critical services graduates of the local educational institutions render to society locally and to the world by those who become part of the brain drain phenomenon. It is also a failure to appreciate the efforts of educators who have to toil under challenging circumstances.

Even if graduates are appropriately educated, they may run into national or global problems which cannot be anticipated with precision by the national educational institutions. For example, war can break out, climatic change can occur, global economic downturn, new inventions which make many contemporary skills or knowledge obsolete, etc. Even if the educational system responds by adjusting to the change quickly, it cannot immediately solve the resulting problem of unemployment. That in turn can decrease the capacity of the educational system to conduct its obligation effectively.

If the reported decline in the quality of education in Uganda is not the exclusive fault of the educational system inherited from the colonialists, then we need to ask questions about the underlying causes beyond blaming the colonial legacy. Whenever there is no incentives, creativity and innovation tend to die, not necessarily from lack of uncritical minds or inability of the products of an educational system to be creative and innovative. Rather, it is because most of the energy is directed toward basic survival. Besides, one can create a lot of things in one’s mind, but it is another thing to actualize them. One needs resources which one may not be able to create by oneself. As is said,  it takes money to make money.  Those who can do without it are very rare indeed.

Failure to produce useful products does not necessarily mean that people are not thinking creatively, or innovatively. Often, even the most creative and the most promising ideas never see the light of day. To succeed the creators or inventors unfortunately must endure years of nonacceptance, and even ridicule. In such cases, the inventors must have the means to sustain themselves while the ideas undergo the test of time. Otherwise, frustration, self-doubts, and a life of poverty creeps in and may not only snuff out the creation but also the life of the creative thinkers. Would the system of education be responsible for that?

It is fashionable to proclaim that the educational institutions in Uganda and other similar countries do not train students to answer the “why is” questions for which we need to teach students to answer? Again, these are not problems for which the educational institutions are solely to blame. The problem goes far beyond the schools and universities. If anything, these schools, and universities are doing their best given some of the most unfavorable circumstances in which they function. For example, teachers cannot teach effectively if they are underpaid, have inadequate or no scholastic materials and no incentive because of having no hope of promotions. Likewise, students cannot learn effectively when the schools lack basic scholastic materials, students come to school hungry, and are concerned about personal safety, etc. Are these problems of the educational system?

Yes, it sounds nationalistic and attractive to say that the first step to preparing students to answer the “why ” question is to build critical skills which requires knowing “the causes of things”. However, knowing the causes of things alone is not enough to enable citizens to progressively become “masters of their own destiny” as some people have proclaimed. The environment in which they learn, or work may not be conducive to even think beyond getting food for the day. For example, how can one be the master of one’s own destiny if only ideas which come from the top leader of the country are encouraged or allowed to be tested in practice?

If the system of education is not responsible for the high rate of unemployment, then we need to look elsewhere to properly understand the cause of the high unemployment rate among the educated youth. That will be a subject for discussion on another day.