On the face of it, it seems strange for a major university to invest time and effort in providing Masters degree education for young people living in some of the poorest communities in the world – for no obvious financial advantage. But an initiative, fully funded by the Manchester University and its alumni, with passionate support from its vice chancellor Professor Alan Gilbert, is doing just that in Uganda, with plans to expand the scheme into Kenya and Bangladesh.
"Though universities are research and educational institutions, you could argue that their most important mission in the 21st century is going to be social engagement," says Gilbert. "Producing graduates who will be responsible global citizens is now more critical than ever. So it's right and proper to invest skills and knowledge and educational opportunities in the most needy parts of the world."
Manchester – along with its alumni association – has invested in a range of "equity and merit" schemes intended to throw an educational lifeline to these disadvantaged but gifted young people. It is one of the few British universities to do so. It is costing £350,000 and it means that 48 young Africans are being supported in the academic year 2008/09 – 35 more students than the previous year. Next year the number is expected to increase still further.
Some of the support is in the form of scholarships that fund students to study in Manchester. Others take part in an e-learning programme that gives Masters students the chance to study from their home country using cutting-edge internet technology. And another programme funds the validation for a BSc in HIV/AIDS delivered by Mildmay International, a Christian AIDS palliative care specialist non-governmental organisation in Uganda.
The university also ensures the scholarships go to the most needy in Uganda by using local charity Kulika to manage the selection process. So far, it seems to have worked: the scholars are from some of the poorest communities on earth.
The writer is media relations officer, Faculty of Humanities, University of Manchester
'We have online access to a lecturer at any time – in real time'
Jane Namaganda, 27, Masters in public health
Jane hopes to complete her Masters in public health by 2011. She came across the scheme when she saw an advert on a notice board at Makerere University where she works as a nurse researcher.
"It offered four scholarships to Ugandans using a remote learning method," she says. "I submitted a 500-word essay on public health and after a few weeks found out I had got it."
The study is hard – but satisfying, she says. Notes, coursework, papers are all available online, and students can download material from the university's library website.
"We have online access to a lecturer at any time – in real time – during working hours and it's fantastic that you can get feedback so quickly. I'm very well looked after.
"The fact that this course is available to Africans like me will bring enormous benefits. But we need more!"
'Education isn't an option for most people'
Badru Bukenya, 27, Masters in international development, specialising in development management
Badru works at Uganda's largest AIDS organisation, TASO, and runs food distribution, education and micro-credit programmes. With HIV/AIDS on the increase in Uganda, his work is more important than ever.
Yet he would never have got an education if it had not been for an accident he suffered as a child. His single mother had decided that she could no longer afford to keep him in school and had arranged for him to begin work at a garage.
At the age of 10, however, he fell off his bike and broke his arm, which meant that manual work was out of the question. So his mother had to think again. Despite financial hardship, she paid for him to stay on in school – and the rest, for Badru, is history.
He grew up in the Rakai district, home of the very first HIV case in Uganda. Badru threw himself into his books in an attempt to escape a life in the slums and in 1997 took his O-levels, achieving his school's only First grade.
"Education is not an option for most people in Uganda," he says "The vast majority are destined for poverty from birth. My escape was down to sheer good fortune. Manchester was great for me. In Africa, having a Masters is critical to finding a decent job and it gives you an edge."
A Masters degree gives you practical skills, as well as the theory to critically evaluate policy, which is what Badru needs at TASO. "I've been lucky and now things are okay for me. But there are many gifted people in my country who have no access to education. Universities are in a unique position to help them."
'My father died when I was 12. My mum sells goods in the street'
Robert Lule, 29, Masters in maintenance engineering and asset management
Despite his young age, Robert's already an assistant commander in charge of 100 or so men and millions of pounds worth of vessels that patrol the waters of Uganda's Lake Victoria, where he's based.
Four boats – bought recently for £1.2m each – are his strongest weapon in the dangerous fight against piracy and smuggling. And now – thanks to his Masters degree – he'll be able to maintain the boats properly and train other officers.
"In 1995 we only had open canoes, but now we have a strong presence on Victoria thanks to these well-maintained boats," he says. "It's a lot safer now. There's more investment in tourism, fishing – and sailing."
Robert is the first person in his family to go to university and grew up in difficult – but typical – circumstances: "My father died when I was 12 and my mum sells goods in the street. It was a hard life."
But his mother managed to scrape together enough savings to send Robert to school, where he excelled, eventually getting a Ugandan undergraduate scholarship to Makerere, Uganda's flagship university in Kampala.
He had no doubts about the need to go home after completing his Masters in Manchester, and believes that, unlike wealthier Africans, the poor are more likely to go back to their communities than to stay in the West after graduation.
"Students from richer backgrounds won't feel the need to go home because they have the resources to live oversees and their families aren't dependent on them," he says. But my family needs me. I had no doubts about going back home."
'We need to avoid a brain drain'
Jonathan Serugunda, 27, MSC in communication engineering
Like other scholars in Uganda, Jonathan has been forced to battle considerable adversity to achieve educational success, losing his father when aged eight.
But unlike his fellow graduates, Jonathan sees his future in academia. After graduating with distinction at the end of 2008, his dream is to lecture at Makerere University.
It's not easy choice: an assistant lecturer in Uganda earns only about £408 a month. "You definitely need a Masters degree if you are to get a job as a lecturer in Uganda," he says.
Makerere can't afford to buy the equipment that's invaluable to study, he says, but the good thing about Manchester is that students have access to state-of-the-art technology. "We need more of these type of scholarships but African governments too must invest in universities. And we need to avoid a brain drain to ensure that the people with much to offer return."