ANALYSIS: What a dead academic year would have meant for students, institutions

By Joan Salmon

Daily Monitor of June 15 reported that during an emergency Cabinet meeting held on the eve of the budget reading, Foreign Affairs minister Sam Kutesa asked President Museveni to announce a dead academic year for all educational institutions as a measure to keep learners safe.

The suggestion was however rejected in favour of buying radios and TV sets for learners to enable virtual learning ( “Cabinet rejects dead academic year, opts to buy 10m radio sets Daily Monitor June 15).

While this means the idea of a dead academic year has been disregarded, do you ever wonder what it would mean if we took that path?

Change of schools
Agnes Achiro, the headmistress, of Seeta Junior, Mukono, says it would have been such a painful thing if a dead academic year had been declared .

“It would hurt because of the candidates as it would be daunting for them to repeat a class and would demotivate them. Even those in other classes would feel bad and the chances of their parents moving them to another school to get placed in the next class would be high,” she opines.
Achiro says even parents who had cleared the whole year would rather change school than pay for yet another year in the same class.” She says that this transfer will definitely affect the performance of the pupils and school on a whole because the pupils will have skipped a class.

Progress not based on school
Marianne Ndyanabo, a parent, is unfazed by the idea of a dead academic year. “I do not counter my children’s progress on what they get from school. I have actually told them that none will repeat a class,” she shares passionately.

Ndyanabo believes that many panic at the thought of the idea because of the ideology that school is all that matters.

“On the contrary, we need to teach our children even while at home because the teacher is only doing a job but the teaching is our responsibility. I can get most of what is taught in school online and teach my children as well,” she adds. Ndyanabo says every corner in her home has turned into a study centre and her children have learned how to organise, set and keep schedules, and account.

Safety first
Another parent that desired anonymity says they believe that health comes first.

“If the Ministry of Education and Sports (MoES) could reasonably justify that no affordable standard operating procedures (SoPs) for learning institutions could be developed and implemented in the short run, then I would have been fine with a dead academic year.” he says.

However, given that we are in a global village and our children are competing with others that are at school, he believes there would be no justifiable excuse for not having SoPs for learning institutions and thus there would be no justification for a dead year.
While schools and parents are affected, the ultimate person that feels the pinch is the student for whom fees is paid and teachers teach.

Not such a bad idea
Leon Okello, a student, says an ultimatum of a dead academic year would hurt as it would mean repeating a class.

“I would be going through the same stress that I thought would be left behind me by this time next year.”

However, he is quick to add that it would also bring some relief.

“It would have given me an opportunity to make up for lost time seeing that we have not covered much for the year and many of us are not reading as we ought to,” he smiles. Okello, nonetheless notes that there is also anxiety created by the uncertainty regarding what next year holds.

“Will the exams be so tough because we have had so long to prepare? Will they be brought earlier than usual? We do not know what tomorrow holds,” he sighs.

Turning back the hands of time
Paul Muwonge, another student, shares sentiments with Okello when he says a dead academic year declaration would have been a chance to prove his prowess.

“My report from mid-term was not good at all, so a dead year would have given me an extra opportunity to better my performance.” he says

Having taken a glimpse into the efforts required for the class, Muwonge believes that rather than go with the flow, another year at this would have been a blessing.

More costs
However, few see it the way these students look at it because Rose Naiga, the headmistress of St Mary’s SSS, Nkozi, says it would be a very big blow because they would not see a way forward for the candidates who had covered one-and-a-half-months of their final lap.

“We are in a rural setting and most parents are low income earners. A dead academic year would have meant them paying school fees afresh, which is unfair. With some already struggling with arrears, some candidates could even drop out of school,” she shares her fears.

She also points out that some of their students support themselves by doing odd jobs during holidays.

“While they are also helped by the school dependency bursary, many of these were already struggling to meet their side of the bargain. Therefore, telling them that they need to do this for yet another year in the same class is challenging,” she says.

Naiga suggests that rather than kill the year, they would rather go back in the foreseeable future, catch up, do some polishing and crown the year.

Extra work

With barely three to four months to go to the final examinations, the idea of catching up may seem almost impossible hence denting the quality of people leaving Senior Four and Six.
However, Naiga says, Senior Four students, in particular, have done most of the work in the earlier classes so the syllabus should ideally be done by second term.

“That is also coupled with the fact that the trend lately is extra work right from Senior One. Therefore, these are ready to sit for their exams with what they have already covered.”

She says the only worry would be with Senior Six candidates but seeing that schools ensure that student choice raises above that of the parents regarding the combinations the students do, they believe they have taken on combinations they are comfortable with hence do not need yet another year to complete.

“Besides, it is just June, so there is still time to catch up seeing that they sit for their papers in November,” she shares.

The dead academic year policy is one that has been entrenched in higher education academic policy frameworks for many universities. A dead year is declared when a student is absent from studies from or fails to pursue their studies during an academic year for various reasons such as health, and financial challenges.

For most institutions, Prof Dr Michael Mawa, Deputy Vice Chancellor, Academic Affairs, Uganda Martyrs University, says granting of a dead academic year is not automatic as the student must seek permission from the relevant authorities such as the Academic Registrar to take a dead year or semester prior to the conclusion of that year or semester.

He explains that a university academic year is constituted of two semesters of 18 weeks each or three terms of 12 weeks each.

“For most university students, the suspension of their studies due to Covid-19 came at a time when they had covered about eight weeks of their second semester of the academic year 2019/2020. A blanket dead academic year for these students would have meant that even their first semester is in effect dead hence starting all over again.”
Prof Mawa, who is also the founding president of Ugandan Universities Quality Assurance Forum, says a careful review of dead year policies of most universities reveals that there is a fee .

“Some institutions have up to 25 per cent of tuition and functional fees to be paid by a student who has been granted a dead year/semester. Moreover, the costs of accommodation and feeding for a full time residential student will have to be covered again.”

So the question is, if this option had been taken, would students have been asked to pay all costs or would government have covered these direct and indirect costs for all students who have to start their repeat academic year or semester again? I guess we will never know.

Besides time and financial waste that comes with a dead year, Prof Mawa says students will have to deal with the psychological anguish that comes with the lost time and money.

“For final year students, a dead year would mean lost opportunity to pursue further studies or secure employment that comes with the presentation of complete academic transcripts that indicate the level of performance of the student,” he shares.

Upsetting the system
Prof Mary Okwakol, the executive director of National Council of Higher Education (NCHE), believes if this had been declared a dead academic year, there would have been no movement for the students.
“It is likely to clog the system as everybody will be static where they are,” she observes.

Prof Okwakol says the realistic way of looking at the effects of the dead year declaration is to take institutions on a case by case basis.

Looking at finalists who are pursuing health-related programmes, she says, these are ideal meant to take over from the interns in various health facilities who are to be leaving by the end of August.

“If they do not take over, it will cause a human resource problem for the facilities as these do a lot of work in the sector. As such, there will be gaps,” she shares.

Joining university?
Prof Mawa says with new entrants, the situation would have been dire.

“The entrance of new first year students and the presence of old first year students, whose academic year would have been declared dead, would mean universities would have to operate dual classes for the same year of students or to combine the two cohorts of students in the same class.”

He attests that the latter option is even more challenging in light of the ‘new normal’ of social distancing amidst limited classroom space in most universities.

“Moreover, the option of running dual classes for the two cohorts would imply that universities would have to deploy more educational resources to ensure quality teaching and learning,” he says.

With the current challenges presented by Covid-19 to universities, Prof Mawa believes any additional problems occasioned by a declaration of a dead academic year would break the higher education institutions.

“Therefore, option for “emergency remote education” is the best option to enable students complete their year of study. This means MoES and the MPs need to relax their initial hard stand on online teaching and assessment,” he mentions.
Prof Okwakol responds with a ray of hope when she says that institutions that are ready to offer e-learning classes can do so, as long as they show NCHE that they have the facilities to run such and the courses are accredited.

“NCHE has come up with emergency guidelines. The Emergency Open Distance And e-Learning (ODeL) system, to cater for this period for the next 12 months to enable institutions offer open, distance and e-learning classes. These will be sent out to institutions very soon,” she mentions.

Story obtained from Daily Monitor online June 22


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