KAMPALA — Allen Asimwe has dedicated more than two decades to teaching geography at a large public high school in southwestern Uganda. Her retirement age, as a public servant entitled to benefits, is just six years away.
She doubts she will wait that long.
“I am determined, I want to quit,” she says, calculating that she could earn more by shifting full time to the salon she opened six years ago to supplement her income. “Given the frustration, I cannot continue in class anymore.”
For years, she hoped the Uganda National Teachers’ Union would succeed in lobbying for better wages. Her newfound resolve stems from the government’s August decision to triple salaries for public high school educators — but only those teaching in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields. Starting in July, monthly paychecks for those instructors will jump to 4 million Ugandan shillings ($1,125), but pay for arts and humanities teachers like herself will remain behind at 1.2 million shillings ($340).
While acknowledging the controversial nature of the pay disparity, President Yoweri Museveni and his Cabinet stand firmly behind the decision in public statements. Citing national development plans, they position STEM education as an economic priority; citing the pandemic and a chronic shortage of medical professionals, they position it as a matter of life and death.
Science and technology feed the economy
“Science is the base of our livelihood, economy and whatever we do,” says Chris Baryomunsi, minister of Information, Communications Technology and National Guidance, adding that “while all civil servants should be paid better, scientists must be motivated to enhance on a knowledge-based economy and have more employed countrywide.”
Supporters of the pay raise hope to motivate STEM teachers to give their full attention to students — and encourage students to see those career paths as lucrative.
Policies should not devalue but unite
Uganda’s teenagers historically underperform in science and math, according to the National Examinations Board, with fewer than half passing exams in those subjects each year from 2003 to 2016. National efforts to improve these outcomes began with the 2005 Uganda Science Education Policy, making physics, chemistry and biology compulsory for high school students. Since 2015, more than 70% of government scholarships have gone to students pursuing related career paths, says Dennis Mugimba, a Ministry of Education and Sports spokesperson.
As a more effective, less divisive way to encourage STEM learning, government funds could help improve science labs and classroom tools, rather than increasing teacher salaries based solely on the subject matter, says Peter Okware, director of Teachers in Need, a Kampala-based organization that offers professional development and advocacy resources for educators.
“Policies should not devalue but unite,” he says.
Uganda has 1,226 public high schools, with 550,000 teachers — three quarters of them in humanities subjects, including history, English, literature, geography, religion and art. All belong to the teachers’ union, which organized strikes in 2013 and 2019 for higher pay, says Filbert Baguma, the union’s general secretary.
The union has requested a forum with Museveni to discuss the August announcement but is still awaiting a response.
“We shall decide what to do as events unfold, especially after the meeting with the president over this issue,” Baguma says.
The union may be less firmly united this time, given that the salary increase has benefited some members. Supply and demand is also on the government’s side: At an October recruiting event at Kololo Senior Secondary School in Kampala, the capital, educators from across the country braved scorching sun for a chance to interview for positions as public school teachers.
The country is not made up of sciences alone
Steven Okurut, 54, a high school physics teacher for 26 years, says he feels torn between happiness over this year’s salary increase — which will enable him to buy a car — and guilt that it will not benefit his colleagues in other subjects.
“It’s natural that this will not please my counterparts,” he says. As a result of sinking morale and rising turnover, he fears, “the students may suffer the brunt of this whole divide.”
Parents share this concern. Slyvester Nsaali Ssemakula, a retired civil servant who chairs the Parents and Teachers Association at Mukono High School, where his children are enrolled, says they oppose financial favoritism of STEM teachers.
“The country is not made up of sciences alone,” he says. “After getting good health and what to eat from biology and agriculture, which are science subjects, I need to balance my life with good business and go for recreation and entertainment, which are attained through art subjects.”
Allen Asimwe plaits hair at the salon she opened to supplement her income teaching high school geography
Edna Namara, GPJ Uganda
Leaving the classroom
For Mariam Nabattu, an Islamic studies teacher for more than 20 years, morale was already low due to the loss of in-person learning during the pandemic, preceded by years of stagnant salaries despite rising curriculum standards that created heavier workloads.
Although grateful that she was able to keep working when her school moved online, the mother of six says she quietly started teaching at a second institution to earn enough to support her family. The upcoming pay disparity, she says, makes her feel hopeless.
“I feel so low, as if I did not work for my qualification,” she says.
Even if the pay disparity gets resolved in this year’s budget, Asimwe says at this point, it’s unlikely that her salary could be raised quickly enough to make up for years of feeling undervalued. She has enrolled in an entrepreneurship course in preparation for leaving her classroom and expanding her salon business.
"It’s time to stop thinking so much about students and maps," she concludes, "and start thinking more about clients and hair."
“I would rather divert my interest to where I feel the satisfaction of my work instead of working for ungrateful people,” she says.
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