Monday, January 28, 2013

The Victoria University dream: How it all ended in tears

"It's all so unfair, Mr Alan."
It was difficult to disagree with Sandra. We are standing on the rather impressive steps of Victoria University in Kampala. She immaculately turned out as ever, hair and make-up perfect and tailored clothes just so and me, hot and unusually bothered.
"What are you going to do?" I asked, rather lamely, in the hope that she had a grand plan up her sleeve. But, like scores of other students who have had their dreams of an ‘African-based, internationally recognised degree’ dashed Sandra is not really in a position to do much.
She has a family and a business in Uganda and she can't drop everything and resume her studies in Dubai or the UK, alternatives offered by the company that has abruptly called a halt to her course.
Sandra doesn't want to go to a Ugandan university with huge classes and lack of equipment. That's why she worked hard to put herself through Victoria's International Foundation Programme last year and join my Media, Communication and Journalism course in September.
But that looks like being her only option. I mutter a good luck message and we shuffle our separate ways, both close to tears.
There are around 150 Sandras left high and dry by Edulink, the company that owned and ran Victoria University. In a dramatic announcement just days before the new term was due to start staff were told that courses validated by the University of Buckingham in the UK had been suspended.
A statement put out on the Victoria University website set out the reasons behind the move:
“Under both UK and Ugandan law discrimination on a variety of grounds is prohibited; however there are fundamental differences between the two nations’ respective laws regarding equality and diversity, which cannot be reconciled.  
After seeking legal guidance from both
UK and Ugandan lawyers, Victoria University and University of Buckingham have concluded that as the laws of Uganda and UK presently stand, Victoria University cannot comply with both sets of laws.”
This is all about the so-called ‘Gay Bill’, which was due to be presented to Parliament early this year. It calls for severe penalties for people who engage in homosexual acts and even threatens punishment for anyone who knows about others who know about any such behaviour.
The bill, however, looks unlikely to make it to be debated let alone onto the statute books and some pundits feel it is more likely a smokescreen while other weightier matters like the future of Uganda with new-found oil wealth are discussed. 
It is not for me to speculate on the whys and wherefores of this decision, but no-one at Buckingham, apart from the deputy vice chancellor Professor Alistair Alcock, appeared to know anything about this move. His somewhat unconvincing interview with the BBC World Service makes uncomfortable viewing.
So, two years hard work unravelled in a matter of days. The students were told they could have a refund for last term’s fees and would be offered help to continue their studies at Middlesex Dubai or Buckingham in the UK while the academic staff were given three days to clear their desks and were paid off as per their contracts.
I rather enjoyed working for a ‘private’ university. It brought the concept of ‘student-centred learning and teaching’ very close to home as without happy and fulfilled students filling the seats and paying the fees there was no university.
And that really is the tragedy of it all. The students were happy. They were proud to belong to the Victoria campus and were the best recruiting sergeant of all, telling friends and family about what a great place it was to study.
And they had no reason to doubt Edulink’s intentions. As the Edulink website says:  “Creating a financially and culturally prosperous society is Edulink's core mission, and if its success to date is any indication, the sky is the limit for this one-of-a-kind organization.”
Unfortunately the sky is not the limit for Sandra, or indeed the committed staff from around world (including me!) who must pick up the pieces too.
Packing up to go wherever next, I remember back to one of our classes where I introduced the students to the dark arts of interviewing. I have shown hundreds of young journalists how to approach people and get them to open up and answer a few simple questions as the basis for a ‘You Say’ vox-pop.
I’ve had students go home, be sick, freeze in fear and pack up and go to the pub rather than tackle the great unknown in the street. Ugandans are not great at direct questions or eye contact so I set the bar quite low at just three interviews each in a 30-minute exercise.
Sandra was first back. She had talked to 20 people, and showed me her notebook complete with comments and more names, ages, occupations etc than even I dared expect for a first exercise.
Both the media in Uganda, with its Government-sponsored claptrap, and higher education sector, with degrees that carry no weight outside the country, are in need of an overhaul. And in a few years’ time Sandra and her classmates would have been in a position to lead a quiet revolution from within.
That dream is now on hold; a tragedy for Sandra, the Victoria University students and staff – and Uganda.

10 comments:

  1. Inspiring, entertaining, a great father, friend, teacher...we shall miss u too Professor, hope what the future holds is brighter than the present. Wishing u all the best with wherever u decide to go

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  2. Sorry to hear you'll be out of Africa, Zebedee, but I know you'll land somewhere else exciting. Hope to catch up in between...

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  3. A sad story, Alan, especially as I know you would have inspired so many young people to pursue the greatest of professions.
    Here's to the next adventure for you!

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  4. Sorry to hear your news, Mr Alan. Hope your students get fixed up and that you are okay.

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  5. it's such a hard yime for everyone

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  6. Many things ended in tears. You haven't be worry abot this. But situation...

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