Education, Work & the ESRC Studentship: A Personal Account

Date: 24/10/2022


Hamis Mugendawala is an Education Economist and social worker with over 17 years of experience. Hamis holds a PhD from the University of Southampton (UK) and he is a PRINCE2® certified project management practitioner and a chartered member of the British Chartered Institute of IT.  He has trained and worked in Africa, Europe and America. He has previously held the British ESRC fellowship leading to the award of a PhD in Educational Economics, Policy and Planning of the University of Southampton, UK. Also, he received a Commonwealth Scholarship leading to the award of an MA in Educational Planning, Economics and International Development of the Institute of Education, University College London, UK. Hamis currently works with the National Planning Authority (NPA) Manager Policy Research and Innovation. He is also a Board Member to the Village Book Builders (VBB)-a global Not-for-Profit Organization based in the US that is giving hope to children in poor communities by building for them libraries.


I was born in a remote village in Eastern Uganda. My Mom did not register my birth, so I do not have a birth certificate. I recall our family being among the poorest in our community. I went to a poor local primary school where we sat on bare ground (uncemented) under a tree. My Mom could not afford an exercise book for me, so I used to write on the floor with a stick and sometimes charcoal. This was highly challenging, particularly as I had to wrestle with others to protect my work from being stepped on before the teacher could mark it. However, I came to realise that not having an exercise book was in one way a blessing. It improved my ability to retain taught material as I had no chance of looking at it again.


I grew up with little hope of succeeding in school and I envied those who I perceived to be from ‘good’ homes and who attended better schools. However, this began to change as I progressed through the education system. I started to question the narrative that emphasised the importance of fiscal and material resources necessary to attain a quality education. Little did I know then that this would inform my doctoral study many years later.


As part of my doctoral research, I explored effective education models for resource constrained countries like Uganda. This was achieved through a critical analysis of educational process factors including: leadership and classroom processes, school community relationships, school-based support for learners affected by HIV, and processes that provided more opportunities for learners to learn. This research focus emerged from my earlier realisation that while fiscal and material resources are important in the provision of quality and equitable education, their contribution is constrained by the efficacy of educational processes. My major thesis was that while the educational budgets of schools, local authorities and countries had grown considerably, little progress had been registered in terms of improved and more equitable learning outcomes. The thesis was informed by my personal academic history and educational background. This meant that resource constrained schools, local authorities or even countries needed not to use poverty to justify poor education outcomes. My study found that some materially poor schools with strong school processes posted better learning outcomes when compared with wealthy schools with poor processes.


My PhD was funded through the ESRC. During my studentship, I received unrivalled support from the ESRC office and doctoral school at the University of Southampton. Foremost, I had the opportunity to undertake many courses in advanced quantitative methods, including Rasch modelling, Structural Equation Modelling, Multilevel Modelling, Regression Methodologies, and Factor Analysis. I was supported to attend advanced quantitative methods courses from universities including Cambridge, Manchester and Oxford. I also became a visiting scholar at IOWA State University, USA, where I collaborated with Prof. Serra Hagedorn on a research project that investigated the nexus between school-based support for learners and teachers affected by HIV and learning outcomes in Ugandan schools. I utilised these new skills copiously and applied them in several articles that have received publication in high impact journals. I also applied these new skills while working as visiting professor at Makerere University in Uganda.


Prior to completion of my doctorate, I was supported financially to enact the theories that arose during my research in practice. I collaborated with the Holy Cross Secondary School-Jinja District to implement some of the interventions that my study found to be impactful in improving quality and equity in learning outcomes. I am happy to report that this school is now one of the most effective in the district and it has helped me to prove the concept of my thesis. I also managed to do outreach in the UK; for instance, at the Cherbourg Primary School in Eastleigh. I managed to twin this highly effective school with two schools in Uganda. This was partly the reason I was voted the most impactful PhD candidate of the year in 2014. Currently I am supporting another school – St. Paul Nasuuti Secondary School – in the Iganga District using my thesis findings. Positive signals are emerging in terms of increased enrolment, teacher engagement, opportunity to learn and leadership effectiveness.


Upon completion of my doctorate, I landed a job in a government institution called the National Planning Authority, which is charged with planning for the entire country. My initial role was that of a senior education strategist for the government, with my role entailing the generation of strategic direction for education. It also entailed working with fifteen ministries, departments and agencies of the education sector to develop their strategic plans. I also liaised with development partners in agreeing priorities for funding. In this role, I led the first ever National Evaluation of the Universal Primary Education (UPE) policy that has hitherto informed the education agenda in Uganda. Furthermore, I led the first ever national study of the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) that informed the priorities of ECCE in the National Development Plan. Currently I am the manager for policy research and innovation at the National Planning Authority where I am charged with the production of research outputs for better implementation and monitoring and evaluation of National Development Plan. Outside formal employment, I am a board member of the Village Book Builders (VBB). In VBB, I am part of strategy team and we have provided libraries and reading materials to needy communities and poor schools around the world.


In each of these roles, as in the undertaking of my PhD, particular skills have been paramount throughout. These include problem solving, independence, self and time management, translation of academic research into policy documents/non-academic documents, communication of study results to non-academic audiences, advanced data analysis skills, critical thinking and writing among others.


I have taken several lessons from my studentship that have enabled me to succeed academically and in my career. Foremost, it is critical to strive to get the most out of your studentship. UK Research Council Studentships are highly regarded and they offer many opportunities aimed at nurturing an all-round PhD. Second, it is critical to do your research in liaison with the target audience who are to benefit from it. This helped me keep my research near to reality and helped me remain enthusiastic. PhD candidates tend to dropout due to loss of steam along the way. This arises partly due to lack of anchoring with those who need to use its findings and recommendations. This leads to the need to build yourself a research and non-research network to keep you abreast with the happenings in your area of study and career. PhD candidates face the risk of isolation given the magnitude of work hovering over their heads and forget to connect with people who matter. During my PhD, I kept a wide network of academic and non-academic people and organisations. As such, I was able to participate in various academic and non-academic activities that were crucial for my success. Finally, for me it was also critical to be prayerful. I indeed needed the guidance of the omnipotent to sail me through. Luckily, multifaith rooms were available in Southampton so I didn’t lack spiritually. I hope you have been inspired by this article, and I wish you luck in your PhD endeavours.

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