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Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The scramble for degrees

It is lunch hour in the dinning room of Mitchell Hall at Makerere University. Stomachs are rumbling with hunger; the queue is full of students with solemn faces. The students are hungry. But they are not alone.
A man; a father figure with some grey hairs and a white beard, is also in the queue waiting for his portion of kawunga (maize meal), weevil-infested beans and rice. You can spot similar figures strolling in, tummies ahead and plates in their hands.
Some of these fatherly types hold O' or A' level certificates while others hold diplomas from higher institutions of learning. They have families and children - and probably lots of money stashed away in banks and in assets. But there is no doubt that they are here to race for degrees in different disciplines. And we are wondering why.
For instance, Lt. Gen. Moses Ali is currently toiling for a Bachelor of Laws degree at Makerere University. He has a high military rank, cash and all the respect he deserves but he will not settle down until he has bagged that degree, why the heck?
Surely, anyone who has read books knows how hectic they can get. Spending sleepless nights to revise can be as unnerving as God knows. And then there is the possibility of failing.
Ask Hajji Nasser Ntege Sebaggala and Lt. Gen. Salim Saleh; they will tell you the true story. So why is it that mature citizens in the 40-70 age bracket - people who are supposed to be retiring - are scrambling for degrees?
"It is just that most of them get married and realise that they are missing out on opportunities for promotion. Others may be doing poorly financially and decide to return to school, hoping that things will change for the better," says Ms Allen Rukundo, a postgraduate student at the Law Development Centre (LDC).
Makerere University has for long held annual mature age entry examinations, which cater for old people desiring to enlist for degrees. Once they are successful, they join the rest of the students; it is how our gentlemen lining for university meals come about.
Accordingly, evening programmes were designed for this class but mostly for the working type. The academic load, both in and outside the class, is the same - only that huge numbers have opted for distance learning, which they do during holidays.
A mature university entrant might be single and independent, with grown up children, but when they join university they are treated as their younger counterparts.
"We take them like others; we don't provide any special facilities for them, they are like any other student," says Ms Hellen Kaweesa, the public relations officer at the university.
As to why most are freely rushing for higher studies, there is this old logic that older learners do much better academically in comparison to other students. Therefore, going back to class is an attempt to buttress knowledge that has been gained out there in the real world; at work and other spheres of life.
Others have registered for online degrees to expedite the process of owning the respected qualification. To such a category, money is not the issue.
The good news is that they will graduate after their toil. Some of them are as old as 65. As luck holds, most universities are desperate to fill places and earn more revenue through tuition fees and other types of fees.
A friendly curriculum has accelerated a momentous rush for university education. This is well explained by Mr Enos Rwasheema, the assistant commissioner, Higher Education, in the Ministry of Education and Sports. He says the ministry does not prohibit anyone from getting quality academic qualifications.
About the rush, Rwasheema says: "I do think that most have reached retirement age; they apply to get more knowledge which will lead them into a series of jobs; from NGOs - this requires distinctive qualifications."
Interviewees say a degree is fundamental in terms of polishing one's sense of logic; an enhanced perception of issues. Most mature entrance students who aspire to be lawyers fall in this category.
Mr Asadu Musoke, a teacher and businessman, based in Kampala's Industrial Area, believes that 'elders' who are hungry for degrees have certain targets: "Some have excess money but are not comfortable with their status; so they shop around for degree courses for prestigious purposes," he says.
Then of course, there is a group that does it for leisure while others hope to pursue exciting careers. With the modern world changing at breakneck speed, the degree has become the ideal gem to catapult the academically dissatisfied to higher heights.
A glance at most of the classified job adverts in newspapers clearly shows that having a university degree is not a luxury. Graduates, no matter from what field, are more attractive to employers.
It is just that most opportunities lie awake waiting for degree holders to take them. The adventure is fulfilling for some people whose plans involve retiring into self-employment. An example, in this category, is the individual who hopes to kick-start a consultancy firm. These types have surged for degree qualifications in droves.
The Guild President Makerere University, Mr Ronald Ssenkubuge Mukasa, says the postgraduate minister on the student's guild handles issues concerning mature students who are guided in their new experience.
Indeed, getting a grip on books, management skills and becoming a most sought-after professional is now a dream for thousands - but this can only be attained through toiling for that degree qualification.
Mr Douglas Kabanda, a BA (Education) student, who competes with most matures says: "Hunger for a solid ground, exposure and thirst for recognition is forcing people to get a life and pick degrees. Knowledge is power. You know what Wanjusi Wasieba has gone through."
Mr Wasieba was recently elected Member of Parliament for Mbale Municipality - after the death of third deputy premier James Wapakhabulo. In a subsequent cabinet reshuffle, President Museveni named Wasieba as Minister of State for Fisheries. He was however rejected by Parliament's Appointments Committee for lack of needed qualifications.
Books are a life-blood to man's survival. That's why people - young and old - are flocking for degrees. This explains why educationists have also become many, and why mid-night courses are being introduced in universities. But does it really make a difference?
Attaining a degree! Is it a sure deal that one will deliver promptly? Whatever the case, "man has been endowed with the power to create so that he can add on to what he has been given," Anton Chekhov, a Russian dramatist and writer, is recorded as having said.
All the same 50 or 60-year-olds are fulfilling their lifelong dreams by advancing careers; learning something new as well as taking an educational leap.
Published in Sunday Monitor, April3, 2005