Ambrose Kibuuka Mukiibi

Uganda’s higher education is in a state of emergency, not because of the disruption occasioned by COVID-19, but because of its continued failure to appropriately address the emergency situation of its customers. If a hospital perpetually fails to handle emergency cases, serial avoidable deaths will ensue.  Over time, the hospital will pick the brand of a death trap or even a fraud. Apparently, this is the image that higher education has picked. As a sub-sector, its integrity, survival and sustainability will largely depend on how successfully it responds to the emergency condition of its customers. By this logic, higher education itself is in a state of emergency. Whereas higher education is only partially responsible for the crisis of graduate unemployment, it must shoulder the burden and respond swiftly, with utmost flexibility and precision. It’s a do or die affair.

Please watch the video below which highlights the crisis in higher education globally and why it has degenerated into a costly emergency for poor countries like Uganda.

Why Higher Education is in Deep Crisis – Prof. Timothy Terrell


About 24% of Uganda’s population are young people in age bracket of 18 – 30 years. Conventionally, tertiary students and recent graduates belong to this age bracket. In the human life cycle, these are prime years of productive energy physically and mentally. However, in Uganda’s case, majority of these young people lack the basic and intermediate production skills that enable a person to earn a decent living through directly engaging in relevant economic activity. They end up surviving as dependents for a prolonged period of time. This is despite the enormous untapped economic resources and opportunities around the country and beyond. They are characterized by a strong deficiency in the livelihood capabilities required to cope and thrive in the existing economic environment. Consequently, this deficiency translates into widespread frustration, apathy and vulnerability. Their condition is life-threatening at personal and societal level, and presents an emergency situation.

There are about 53 universities in Uganda, churning out over 40,000 graduates every year. Many of these fail to find rewarding employment for years. According to a 2017 report by National Planning Authority, 700,000 people join the job market every year, regardless of qualification, but only 90,000 get something to do. This translates into 87% of people ready to work but can’t find a job. Moreover, 20% of those who find jobs are underemployed. Uganda is notably one of the fastest growing populations in the world. It has grown from under 8 million people in 1965 to over 40 million in 2019, and is expected to be over 90 million by 2050. At this rate, the challenge of youth unemployment can only escalate unless something is done differently and quickly.

A lethal combination of factors has precipitated a severe threat to the livelihoods of Uganda’s educated youth to the point that the continued provision of higher education in its current configuration will only serve as a catalyst to the problem. Among others, the factors at play include rapid population growth, slow economic growth and low job creation.  

Courtesy, The Independent Uganda: Youth working in a mobile phone assembly plant in Uganda


Given Uganda’s economic potential, this youth unemployment crisis can be circumvented if treated as an emergency and appropriately handled. The demographic and general economic trends within the country and across the continent point at great prospects for Uganda’s youth, if only they can be equipped with basic and intermediate production skills and duly supported. For example, the rapid rate of urbanization in Uganda alone presents enormous opportunities.  According to the 2020 Uganda Statistical Abstract (UBOS), in 1980 the urban population was only 0.9 million people. This grew to 2.9 million in 2002 before it leaped to 10.6 million in 2020. This urbanization factor alone opens vast opportunities in the complex value chains in agribusiness and cottage industries (like food processing, garments/fashion and design), tourism, light manufacturing, IT, leisure, entertainment and hospitality, among other auxiliary services. This is not to mention the enormous opportunities unfolding elsewhere across Africa.  

However, the main thing about opportunities is that they work for only those who are duly prepared for them. And this is where Uganda’s youth are most deficient. This deficiency in preparedness is what constitutes the emergency. It renders them incapable of appropriately responding to their economic needs, thus threatening their livelihoods. Before this emergency is addressed, the routine academic programmes provided by higher education institutions, because of their, long term and costly nature, will only exacerbate the problem. We shall continue getting the same results as you get when you subject an emergency patient to routine procedures under normalcy. There is need for a quick fix (relief intervention) to deal with the emergency.

The good news though, and main point of this article, is that the capabilities that young people need are of basic and intermediate nature, which can be easily developed between 6 months and one year.


Reposition Community Engagement

The knowledge and skills needed to solve the youth unemployment emergency and transform this country are basic (not sophisticated), and are abundantly prevalent within the institutions of higher learning. In fact, higher education institutions (HEIs) hold the key to Uganda’s transformation. What has all along inhibited them from being effective agents of change is their own operating model. In other words, HEIs are unconsciously holding themselves and the entire country hostage. The game changer has to be built around a shift from the linear thinking that shapes the current interpretation of the functions of higher education. A new model shaped by lateral thinking will enable HEIs to see the function of “Community Engagement” as the core, and the other two (research and teaching) as the means. This simple flip has far-reaching implications; it is the game changer we need.

Clearly, the current model of higher education was designed for a different epoch. The valid context of that epoch has since changed significantly but higher education has not commensurately changed. Higher education was designed to produce human resource for the formal sector with a set of assumptions in mind. Now that many of those assumptions no longer hold, the model needs to be revisited accordingly. The verifiable trend is that the formal sector is not expanding fast enough to employ all the graduates. Some will have to start out with micro and small enterprises in the informal sector. Some students don’t even manage to complete their courses, while others genuinely do not need to complete a whole 3-year, 4-year or 5-year course any way. Some may even resort to postponing enrollment into formal tertiary education until after several years of doing business or being employed in the informal or formal sector. If higher education sees its core mission as community engagement through research and teaching, then its operating model will seek to primarily focus on addressing these realities within the community it serves. An emergency in the community ought to translate into a critical action point for higher education.

image courtesy of Loyola University New Orleans

In summary, under the current model, HEIs seem to be driven by 2 major question: We have our content, how can we teach it? We have our own research interests, how can we pursue them? But under the new model, HEIs should be driven by these two core questions:

  • What are the critical needs (current and future) in the community?
  • How can we use what we know and what we have to practically address the needs in the community?

As an example to to illustrate the point we have just discussed in this section, try out this task. Ask any HEI to share with you an accurate profile of all businesses that operate within a 2-Km radius of their neighbourhood. My guess is that no institution will give you that data, including those that have existed for more than 20 years. HEIs need to be reminded that they primarily exist because of the community and for the community.

Prioritize the Emergency

When a person’s life or livelihood is under heightened threat, the situation constitutes an emergency requiring a rapid rescue response. In any emergency, the goal of rescuing and restoring the victim overrides and disrupts normal life processes. In an emergency situation, insistence on the normal routine only serves to catalyze the problem. Given the foregoing, if higher education is interested in being part of the solution rather than part of the problem, it must be ready to disrupt its normal processes. It must respond swiftly, with utmost flexibility and precision. In an emergency the survival of the victim is the ultimate thing; not the display of sophisticated knowledge. So, if attending to the emergency and saving the victim requires very basic skills, you go ahead to apply those basic skills. Where sophisticated skills are required they should also be available.

Therefore, in the context of this article, if addressing the emergency of graduate unemployment calls for development of basic intermediate skill-sets and knowledge-sets, HEIs should respond accordingly. Such an intervention should still fit within their core mission under the new philosophy of higher education.

Tackling the Emergency

Here are some eight (8) practical thoughts on how to tackle the emergency:

Youth working in an agro-processing plant (RT)
  1. 1. Introduce a one-year transitional programme intensively dedicated to the development of hands-on knowledge, skills and mindset enabling each student to learn how to produce a product or service and trade it. This transitional programme should be a compulsory bridge for all students transitioning from secondary school to tertiary education. It will take the position of what some other countries have as the National Service Programme. This means that by the time a student embarks on their formal tertiary education, they already have the capabilities for active economic engagement. The good news is that Uganda already has the required institutional framework in the form of the Directorate of Industrial Training and the detailed protocol for assessment of such practical competencies, including those learned through informal and non-formal settings. The competence pass card or certification issued to a student by DIT should be proof that s/he possesses a set of verifiable production (work) skills. It ought to be a necessary requirement for a student’s admission to formal higher education studies. This simple measure will ensure that, moving forward, no graduate lacks locally employable and practical production capabilities.

2. Higher Education Institutions to work closely with industry to develop a catalogue of high-potential areas of opportunity in which students can develop skills. These should be based on value-chain analysis to ensure high-value applicability in the local and regional environment. Each student will choose to learn a specific set of production skills as organized on the catalogue.

3. Earmark learning centers across the country where students can enroll to learn the specific skills. Each learning center will be allocated a set of skills in which it commands specialized capacity. The learning centers will include BTVET institutions,  universities, farms, workshops, laboratories, factories, farms, cottage industries, field operations, shops, and any other relevant work places.

4. This transitional programme should be treated as the equivalent of the “National Service Programme as held in some other countries. As such, to the extent possible it should be subsidized by government, especially in regard to covering the critical overhead costs. But in any case, sponsors of students should be encouraged to proactively see this programme as an extension of the formal school structure by one extra year. What is O’level was extended to 5 years instead of the current 4 years? Or what if A’level was extended to 3 years? Would they not go ahead to sponsor the students? Seeing this programme from the angle of its advantages will ease its funding.

Youth learning to add value to meat by making sausages [Image from changemakers]

 5. Government and development partners should channel funding for youth employment and job creation initiatives through this programme. This is because the HEIs will be coordinating the learning, and will have both the database and direct contact with the youth who graduate from this skills programme. Some of the students who pass out from the programme may want to start enterprises while at the same time they proceed with formal higher education. Funding and other enterprise development support should be readily available to enable them create jobs. This programme will also help higher education to reclaim its rightful position as a key influencer and shaper of policy and programming around the issue of graduate employment.

6. The transitional programme will also function as an experiential career guidance process. It will open the eyes of students to areas of opportunity they would otherwise not have thought about, and perhaps influence their choice of courses in higher education. In this sense, the programme will address this hitherto missing link.

7. In order to continuously refine and improve the programme, HEIs, particularly universities should conceptualize it as an Action Research initiative. The research around the processes and outcomes of the programme should influence the focus and design of the education and training programmes in Uganda’s HEIs.

Youth learning to work with applied ICT tools

8. Some of the specific areas of opportunity with high potential for employment and job creation include skills in the following value chains:

Food. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Uganda’s fertile agricultural land has the potential to feed 200 million people. About 80% of Uganda’s land is arable but only 35%is being cultivated. In the context of the demographic trends in Uganda and Africa, the vast food value chains hold diverse opportunities for job creation and employment.

Manufacturing. Both light and heavy manufacturing hold great prospects, especially in context of a growing population and the prominent role of cottage industries.   

Housing and construction. Construction is a booming industry in Uganda and in many parts of Africa. The value chains in this sector are diverse and rich.

ICT. In the context of the Forth Industrial Revolution, the scope of Information and Communication Technology has greatly expanded and holds vast opportunities for employment and job creation. There is no field of practice that does not require applied ICT skills.

Tourism.  Tourism is one of Uganda’s top high potential industries. Developing skills along its value chains is a practical strategy for employment and job creation.

Leisure, sports and entertainment. This is another vast and severely under-tapped sector. There is great need to professionalize it through skills development along the value chains. It is closely inter-twined with the tourism industry, among others. There is enormous opportunity for employment and job creation.

Trade and Commerce. This sector also offers extensive opportunities as it sits at the intersection between all the other sectors of the economy. All industries are facilitate by trade and commerce as the mover of commodities along the value chains. Among other emerging areas, skills in e-commerce are handy anchors of employability and job creation.

Transport. As the core enabler of all the other industries, professionalizing the transport industry is gaining prominence. Developing skills along its value chains is a practical career strategy.

High quality cooking briquettes present a viable alternative to charcoal in Uganda. focusing on them could form a very big value chain in the energy sector employing millions of youth. [Image from Weyi Uganda]


In the introductory paragraph, we argued that higher education must respond to this emergency swiftly, with utmost flexibility and precision. Let’s quickly expound what each of these three means.

Responding swiftly in this context implies taking immediate action, avoiding the usual trap of paralysis-by-analysis. In an emergency situation you swing into action and learn and adjust as you progress with the problem solving. All you need is a clue about the problem and the starting point for arresting the problem.

Responding with utmost flexibility will entail the readiness to venture into the unknown; getting out of the comfort zone; forging and working through partnerships, including with unfamiliar stakeholders; working less with the academicability of things and more with the practicality of things; letting those who know take the lead while humbly learning from them – even when they are far less schooled; repurposing some aspects of the institution in order to align with the emergency response (e.g. administrative and learning systems, time tabling, facilities, staff roles, and other processes). For example, when COVID-19 presented an emergency, Namboole sports stadium was repurposed into a health facility.  

Responding with precision will entail being evidence-based. For example, based on evidence, what kind of skills will generate the desired results? What duration is required to develop the desired level of knowledge and skill-set? What kind of learning environment is required? What are the appropriate teaching and learning approaches? What is the right combination of content and learning processes? How shall we monitor and measure every aspect of the processes/package? What are the necessary networks and how shall we build them? What is the cost and how is it to be met?

A young lady working on a garment project. Fashion and design is one of the key areas for import substitution. [Innovation Village Image]


Emphasis needs to be placed on the fact that the crisis of youth unemployment, particularly graduate unemployment, constitutes an emergency. All players must do whatever is in their means to mitigate it in the short-run, while working towards preventing it in the long-run. The idea of a one-year transitional programme for purely skills development may initially not be wanted by HEIs, the parents and students alike. But is needed. It is in national interest to have all Uganda’s youth empowered with effective production skills at this critical stage of their life. Better to have it and not use it than need it but not have it. The acquired skills This would give some students a kick-start in life and even enable them to finance their higher education later in life. It should be implemented as a matter of national interest, in the same manner a National Service Programme would be. To safeguard it against academicalism, it should be designed as a non-formal hands-on, experiential skilling programme. In effect, the programme will help create an intermediary spectrum of para-professionals, armed with production skills that can be immediately translated into a trade in the market place. While the existing higher education programmes focus on the strategic employability value (SEV) of students, this transitional programme seeks to boost their immediate productive value (IPV).

A young man working in a cake bakery. He quit his professional job to start baking, which pays him better. Skills within the food value chain can be developed in less than a year and tend to yield high returns. [Daily Monitor Image]

The video below illustrates the worth of the proposed 1-year transitional programme


Please type your comment in the comment window at the bottom of this article. Let the discussion roll.

Ambrose Kibuuka Mukiibi has spent over 20 years of professional practice at an innovative intersection between Transformational Education, Career Strategy and Organizational Strategy. He is a sought-after specialist in Human Performance Systems – the art and science of bringing out the best in people – as individuals and organizations. Over the years, he has distilled the powerful insights flowing from his vast experience and generously shared them in form of books. His first book, Remaking the Youth, was published in 2000. His second book, After University, What Next?  first published in 2003, has turned out to be a game-changer, not only for young people transitioning from school to the world of work, but also for senior professionals alike. It has since been published in the 2nd edition (2008) and 3rd Edition (2018). The other life-changing books he has written include, Supercharging Youth Employability Value (2016); Demystifying Capital (2017); and Teaching Deep Without Teaching Hard (2021). Working with a multi-disciplinary team of experts, Ambrose has developed his books into a series of  online short courses to help more people access, digest and systematically apply the life-changing insights in the books

Soon www.careerlabs.net will be launching 12 serialized online courses on Becoming a Productive Graduate®. They are Career Strategy and Advisory courses intricately designed to bridge the critical gaps in career guidance, coaching and mentorship. We are committed to empowering Africa’s young generation so they can make informed and optimal career choices as they transition from one stage of life to the next. Ultimately, our vision is to see young people duly prepared and supported to live optimally productive lives both as career professionals and astute entrepreneurs in the 21st century work environment. These short courses are particularly beneficial to those transitioning from secondary school into higher education, finalists and continuing students in institutions of higher education, as well as recent graduates and mid-career professionals.

1 responses on "EMERGENCY IN HIGHER EDUCATION: A Call For Emergency Response"

  1. Great!
    Thanks Ambrose for sharing.
    N.b. in the revised curriculum for Secondary- “O Level” it emphasizes practical Skills as compulsory to all learners

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