The Fontes Foundation scholarship programme provides sorely needed technical and practical education to disadvantaged youth in western Ugandan villages.
Uganda shares the fate of many developing countries, where university education is seen by the parent generation as the only way to have a successful life. This perception is based on the history of the civil servants of the past, where everyone who made it to university became a civil servant and automatically earned a salary. Today, the reality is different. The civil service is filled up with people, wages are low and working conditions are poor. The young graduates therefore fight for a job in the country’s formal sector, which is extremely limited and where competition is fierce. Only 12% of Ugandans pay taxes, meaning that they work in the “formal” sector. University graduates can easily wait for 2 years after graduating without any work, not even an internship.
In addition, university degrees are extremely theoretical and often based on outdated curricula, and the students are not given sufficient “life skills” and entrepreneurship skills to venture out on their own. Increasingly, young graduates have to compete with children of the upper-middle class that have been sent abroad to study in order to improve their chances on the job market. But even a graduate with a degree from the UK or the US can easily sit at home for 2 years before getting a job.
Paradoxically, the employers are screaming for qualified workers. There is a huge shortage of medical personnel in Uganda, especially nurses and midwives. Companies lack plumbers, carpenters, welders; even drivers of heavy machinery are high in demand. At the same time, parents are breaking their backs, selling off family land and livestock just to send their children to university.
Our scholarship programme in Katunguru, western Uganda, was created out of the huge demand for education in the villages. Students and parents only had one goal: to complete high school in order to get a chance to go to university. However, university studies are extremely expensive, and as explained above, not always an easy career path.
Therefore, we slowly started to introduce the possibility of going for a technical education after “O-level”, and not do the two years of “A-level” that mainly prepare you for an academic future. It has not always been easy to convince parents, guardians and community elders that have a more traditional view. But in the recent years, there has also been more and more debate in the media and by politicians and leaders about the need to develop practical skills and entrepreneurship skills in the young population.
Fontes Foundation established the youth centre in Kampala as a response to the same problem. We also organised a study trip for all the scholarship students in 2013 to the nearby Wildlife school, to expose them to the possibility of a practical course.
Last year, one of our students started a course in midwifery after she completed her O-levels, and this year four students are starting nursing school, only two are going to A-levels. After only two or three years these students will already be earning a salary and contributing to the development of the country.