Speaker Among, VC Nawangwe Clash Over Makerere Law Exam

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The speaker of parliament, Annet Anita Among has distanced herself from an inquiry by vice chancellor Prof Barnabas Nawangwe into the setting of a constitutional law exam at Makerere University’s Law School. 

The May 11 Principles of Constitutional Law II exam for first-year students centred on the UK sanctions against the speaker and the subsequent imaginary engagement with the leader of the opposition Joel Bazekezi Ssenyonyi. The exam also referenced the would-be reaction of President Yoweri Museveni, director of public prosecutions (DPP) among others.

Four days after, Nawangwe on May 15 ordered a probe of the lecturer who set the referenced question. The vice chancellor raised concerns about the contents of the exam, asking whether it met the academic standards of a premier university like Makerere. Nawangwe also asked the probe team to establish whether there were ethical issues that fell below expected standards.

“…specifically address. i) whether the paper meets the minimum academic standards of Makerere as a premium university; ii) whether the re ethical issues set by the same standards,” Nawangwe wrote. 

He asked that the board also investigate the past three papers set by the same examiner and requested the principal to submit a report to the Senate for discussion.

In response Among yesterday appeared to appreciate academic freedom in learning institutions, emphasizing the importance of allowing students to learn without interference. She noted that she and parliament unreservedly submit to public scrutiny, which she believes is fundamental for a strong, representative legislature and therefore, she found no fault in the exam set for the students. 

“I have received media reports of disciplinary processes being instituted against Makerere University School of Law lecturers on an exam that referred to myself and a sitting of parliament. I hold the view that this is a free society in which freedom of expression is guaranteed and sacrosanct, including academic freedom protected under Article 29(1)(b) which protects academic freedom in the following terms: “freedom of thought, conscience, and belief which shall include academic freedom in institutions of learning,” Among wrote on X.

“…I believe our duty will be to give the students unbiased context on what exactly happened during the sitting in issue, so that, as academicians, they form their own opinion on the conduct of public affairs and how they will improve them when it is their turn to be in charge of the management of our society. Let the children learn,” she added.

Now a section of academia has also come out to defend the lecturer who set the exam, saying there was nothing wrong with the way the paper was set. Others say the inquiry called by Nawangwe is an attempt to trample on academic freedom. There is a line of thought that Nawangwe acted within his means by trying to find out whether the lecturer followed the procedures.

But, largely, the academia interviewed for this story argue that there is nothing wrong with the examination. Makerere University Academic Staff Association (MUASA) accuses Nawangwe of implied or direct attack on academic freedom. The Uganda Law Society (ULS), in defending the lecturer and the right to academic freedom has raised similar concerns.

While the examination has attracted attention, academics caution that essential elements like university processes, quality assurance, and assessment standards are being overshadowed in the controversy. Interviews and document reviews reveal that for an examination to be administered to students, it must meet certain standards, with several procedures in place to ensure this. Some of the issues raised in the Nawangwe letter are key requirements under quality assurance by the National Council for Higher Education (NCHE).

According to NCHE, quality assurance regulations, and standards of the assessment are critical and institutions must put in place mechanisms for quality assurance in examinations including, vetting of papers, proper conduct of examinations, and marking by both internal and external examiners.

To understand the processes and standard of examinations at the Law School, URN interviewed the immediate former principal Prof Christopher Mbaziira who is currently on sabbatical. He explained that exams at the school are typically set by lectures/internal examiners, often by those teaching the respective course unit in question but are moderated to ensure that they meet the required standards.

“The exams must be relevant and aligned with the syllabus content,” said Mbaziira. “They are moderated by colleagues or other experts within the department, and occasionally by experts from other departments. 

He emphasized, however, that only a few people are involved in the process to prevent leaks. Some who had the experience of lecturing at Makerere indicated that there was a time in the history of the university when lecturers set examinations singularly without any form of supervision.

The procedure of setting the examination was then changed to establish a layer, of course, coordinator/head who had to go through and approve the questions – partly to ensure that lecturers didn’t set questions outside what they had taught.         

Dr Mouhamad Mpezamihigo, a higher education expert and the vice chancellor of Equator University of Science and Technology, emphasized that having external moderators review exam papers is also a best practice, adding an extra layer of quality assurance.

“Indeed, there is a need for a thorough process in formulating examinations, including moderation and related aspects, to ensure they meet required standards, comprehensively cover the course unit, and are well-designed,” Mpezamihigo noted. 

The procedure is echoed in the examination regulations of nearly all universities approved by NCHE.  

“Every internal examiner who teaches a course shall set examination questions in the course he/she has taught… all examinations shall be moderated before they are finally produced,” read the revised examination rules for Gulu and Busitema universities. 

The academic board of the Law School has since confirmed that the procedure was followed which means that the paper was moderated and to them, it meets the standards required thus answering the vice chancellor’s question in affirmation.

However, a broader debate has emerged regarding the content of the examination, with opinions varying widely on microblogging platforms like X following Nawangwe’s letter. But, largely the academia interviewed for this story argue that there is nothing wrong with the examination. 

For instance, Prof Mbaziira noted that law education has traditionally included practical assessments to ensure students are not only taught doctrinal knowledge but also the application of that knowledge. He argued that Uganda’s education system has been criticized for low-level assessments that do not encourage critical thinking or real-world application. 

“An assessment should reflect real-world situations. Questions in the form of case studies serve this purpose. The question should be whether the examination reflects the required competencies a learner must achieve,” said Mbaziira.      

He emphasized that as long as the questions meet these criteria and standards, they are appropriate. The former principal noted that while broader issues regarding assessment in schools and universities need discussion, the current debate on the specific examination seemed to be overshadowed by political undertones, which are minor compared to the larger issues at hand. In his view, the debate should focus on the overall quality of assessments given to students. 

Prof Mpezamihigo also highlighted that Ugandan universities have been criticized for producing graduates who are detached from the realities of the workplace, with previous assessments often based on abstract cases and, lectures setting questions out from what is happening in the real world is no problem. 

“If you use a real-life case study as an assessment, it would make a lot of sense. You are connecting the knowledge acquired to real-world situations and encouraging students to bridge the gap between theory and practice. If a student leaves the university without the ability to apply what they’ve studied, they may struggle to perform,” he said. 

Another lecturer at Makerere, speaking anonymously as he considers the debate to be “sensitive”, noted that similar questions reflecting ongoing situations are not new as they are set at by different disciplines in universities across the country.

“What’s the role of a university if not to engage with real-life challenges? For example, why wouldn’t an examiner ask medical students about how COVID-19 was handled in Uganda?” he argued. 

Indeed, as the lecturer pointed out, several other examinations depicting real-life scenarios set by lecturers from various universities in Uganda and beyond have surfaced. Most of them illustrate scenarios based real-life events, while others capture actual real-life situations. 

URN understands that this particular issue was heavily debated during the meeting of the academic board of the Law School. According to documents acquired by this reporter, the board emphasized that the course unit in question deals with complex real-life issues, including the exercise of government authority and confrontations between the government and citizens. 

These realities must be reflected in both the teaching and assessment of the subject. “The public has often criticized the university for teaching abstract concepts. To address these concerns, academics have increasingly used real-life situations to impart knowledge…,” the board noted.

Very old technique 

Available literature indicates that case studies have long been used in business schools, law schools, medical schools, and the social sciences. The technique is applied both in teaching and assessment when instructors want students to explore how what they have learned applies to real-world situations. 

Cases come in many formats, ranging from a simple “What would you do in this situation?” question to a detailed description of a situation with accompanying data to analyze. Whether to use a simple scenario-type case or a complex, detailed one depends on the course objectives.

“Many students are more inductive than deductive reasoners, which means that they learn better from examples than from logical development starting with basic principles. The use of case studies can therefore be a very effective…,” an article on the matter from Boston University website reads in part.

Academic freedom

From what many academics have observed, the actions and letters issued by the vice chancellor are seen as him overstepping his mandate and infringing on the academic freedom of the academicians. In an interview, one lecturer also noted that Nawangwe has consistently played this card during his tenure at Makerere. 

“I believe the vice chancellor’s letter blew the matter out of proportion. What was its motive? These are actions he has been taking for years. The paper is reflecting the political atmosphere and if university students, especially those studying law, cannot engage with such issues, why are they at the university in the first place?” the lecturer questioned. 

The academic board of the Law School similarly voiced concerns, with some members initially declining to attend the emergency meeting. However, they later resolved to attend under protest, stating that they would refrain from attending such meetings in the future.

Prof Joe Oloka-Onyango, the subject head and chief examiner, explicitly disregarded the meeting as an infringement on his academic freedom. He subsequently excused himself from the meeting.

Dr Robert Kakuru, chairperson of MUASA, also noted that the system currently in place at Makerere tends to stifle academic freedom, particularly on issues linked to politics. He views Nawangwe’s letter as a direct and implicit attack on academic freedom, which could significantly undermine the quality of teaching, learning, and examinations at the university.

“The proposed investigations committee should be disbanded with immediate effect,” he noted.

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