Free Yet Unaffordable: The Figures Behind Low Refugee Enrolment in Kampala


By David Boze, Researcher with Xavier Project, dated 11.12.2015

 In spite of the Ugandan government’s attempts to make affordable public education available to all refugees, approximately 10,000 refugee children between the ages of 6 and 13 in Kampala are not enrolled in formal primary education. A brief overview of Uganda’s policies regarding refugees and education would suggest enrolment to be far higher. Under the 2006 Refugee Act, refugees and asylum seekers have access to public and private education institutions across Uganda. Universal Primary Education and Universal Secondary Education were implemented in 1997 and 2006 respectively to lower tuition costs to make education accessible to all. With the promise of universal primary and secondary education, it is a common assumption that the 45,615 urban refugees registered in Kampala are free to access the numerous formal education institutions found throughout the city.

However, recent studies have shown that UPE, USE, and the Refugee Act have not resulted in high enrolment rates among refugees. In Xavier Project’s study “The Limits of Universal Education”, household surveys revealed enrolment rates to be only 33.1%, a number that raises the question Why are Kampala’s refugees failing to access formal education despite such favourable government policies? The following figures help describe the current situation Kampala’s refugees face when trying to send their children to school.

82.7%: Percentage of children and youth not enrolled due to lack of adequate financial resources

Though studies have consistently shown language and discrimination to be significant barriers to refugees accessing education in the urban context (Literature Review: Urban Refugees, UNHCR Policy on Refugee Protection and Solutions in Urban Areas), “The Limits of Universal Education,” revealed a lack of adequate financial resources to be the overwhelming reason for child non-enrolment among Kampala’s refugees. Of school-aged children and youth not enrolled in formal education, 82.7% reported the primary reason to be a lack of financial resources. Focus groups corroborated this finding, citing the high cost of living in Kampala, tuition fees, uniform costs, and other fees associated with enrolment have led to such low enrolment.

$82: Average monthly income of a refugee household in Kampala

The incomes of urban refugees in Kampala are extremely low. “The Limits of Universal Education,” survey showed the median income of a refugee household in Kampala to be 300,000 Ugandan Shillings (UGX), or 82 USD. This amounts to less than a third of the average income of a Kampala resident at 959,400 UGX according to the Ugandan Bureau of Statistics 2010 Household Survey.

 24.0% to 78.0%: Average percentage of monthly income spent on the first term of primary school

Primary enrolment rates among primary-aged children was a low 35.0%. The tuition costs of public primary school per term for a single child ranged from 37,000 UGX to 96,000 UGX, amounting to between 12% and 32% of the median monthly household’s income. For a child’s first term in primary school, admission fees and uniform costs make these figures balloon to between 72,000 UGX and 234,000 UGX, or 24.0% to 78.0% of the median monthly income, a prohibitive cost for many refugee households. With refugee families supporting an average of three school-aged children, paying these tuition costs for multiple children is not realistic when accounting for the cost of food and rent.

18.7%: Secondary enrolment rate among refugee youth

The cost of enrolling in secondary education is even higher than primary education, with tuition among surveyed schools averaging between 385,000 UGX and 808,000 UGX per term. These expenses result in a steep drop-off in enrolment from 35.0% to 18.7% during the critical transition between primary and secondary education. The expense of uniforms, admission fees, and other additional costs make the first term of secondary school an exorbitant 610,000 UGX to 1,319,000 UGX. Without forms of sponsorship, secondary education is well beyond the reach of most refugee families residing in Kampala.

Issues such as discrimination or a lack of language skills are undoubtedly significant barriers to urban refugees accessing education; however, the absence of financial resources are severely limiting Kampala’s urban refugees from accessing education available through UPE, USE, and the Refugee Act. Low household incomes result in most refugee households mean they are unable to afford the costs of school, including uniforms, admissions fees, and other additional costs. The substantially higher price of secondary education has made it inaccessible for the majority of Kampala’s refugee youth to attend school beyond the primary level. Favourable government policies are a critical step in increasing enrolment; however, the poverty of urban refugees must be addressed in order for them to take advantage of these policies and to enrol their children in formal education. Public primary education is free in name only, and the USE has failed to reduce costs to an extent that makes it remotely affordable for the average refugee family.

The Ugandan government must take steps to lower tuition and other school related costs to ensure access to education for Kampala’s refugees. A greater focus on sponsorship for secondary education is necessary moving forward to make enrolment in secondary education a realistic option for Uganda’s urban refugees. Non-formal education, such as classes taught by community volunteers, must also be developed and strengthened to fill the gaps in the formal education system in Kampala. Close collaboration between Uganda’s Ministry of Education and Sports, UNHCR, NGOs, and local community-based organizations is a necessity to take advantage of these policies and to make primary and secondary education truly universal for refugees and nationals alike.

Read the full report The Limits of Universal Education: Barriers to Enrolment for Urban Refugees in Kampala

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