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.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Where happiness is a 2 pence bag of water

It is very hot in Kampala today. Currently 28 degrees with the sun baking down out of a clear sky. Time to get the camera out and see who’s doing what…

THIS BAG of water cost the thirsty customer 100 Ugandan shillings – a little more than 2p in Britain. She is either unwilling or unable to pay 10 times that for a bottle of water.
The bag comes complete with carefully cut straw, which pierces the bag. Just gotta be careful how you carry it…
NATIONAL hero Stephen Kiprotich, the Olympic marathon champion, is everywhere on billboards. ‘Kip Siping’ doesn’t really do it for me, but I think we get the message.
‘A BILLION REASONS TO BELIEVE IN AFRICA. I’m not sure what Coke’s slogan means. It’s also a typographical masterpiece so I guess it’s all in CAPS. This huge truck towing a trailer rattled and rolled along Kira Road delivering glass bottles which will eventually find their way into the thousands of shops, restaurants and roadside kiosks.

THIS girl slogs up the road under an umbrella sunshade. Still looks hard work, though…

Monday, January 07, 2013

“You have to love journalism with all your heart; if you lose the sense of excitement, give up.”

THESE are sadly not my words – I wish they were – but from William Rees-Mogg editor of The Times from 1967-1981 who died just after Christmas.
I hadn’t realised he was so young, just 38 when he became editor (below, right) and only 54 when he switched careers to become chairman of the Arts Council.
His career reminds me that journalism offers a ‘suite of skills’ like no other job. Journalists work fast, are accurate and fearless in dealings with people from all walks of life. No wonder journalists carve out extra careers in politics, education, the arts, charity sector and, whisper it, the dreaded corporate communications.
My concern – as an editor, a journalism educator and a lifelong advocate for the part that journalism plays in holding society together – is that not enough of the right people are coming into journalism and a lot of those that do just don’t stick at it.
Some very good young reporters that I recruited have drifted off into marketing, PR and all that netherworld where no-one cares that you can take down shorthand at 100 words a minute or that your legal and public affairs knowledge will make you everyone’s friend at the pub quiz.
Perhaps I’m just an old romantic for the difference that journalism makes to people’s lives. Whether it’s a phone call to the council to get a street light fixed, reuniting lost-long family and friends or calling the rich and powerful to account what we do does get things done.
But I wonder whether it’s a lack of application from the young journalists or the industry’s failure to provide both more money and a discernible career path. Like a lot of people I swerved around both with some hard work and a bit of luck.
I cut grass and cleaned windows to help supplement my even then meagre newspaper salary, but at no time ever considered giving up to go and do a job that needed no qualification or special skill. And the career path just sort of opened up as I was in the right place at the right time but only after doing some of the stuff that no-one was queuing up for like working at night/holidays/weekend.
I’m embarking on a piece of academic research to see what became of cohorts of NCTJ graduates through the years. My own alma mater (Harlow block release 1975-6) boasts Neil Harman (@NeilHarmanTimes), tennis correspondent of The Times (above, left with you-know-who), and Bob Bird, former editor of the Scottish News of the World.
But what became of the others? My guess is that more are still involved in and around mainstream journalism than from subsequent years.
I know a former journalist, who now works in digital, who wouldn’t help put together a New Year Honours piece because it was the “end of his shift”, not the first time he has pulled out the time card. If that’s what we all become, last one out turn off the lights…