May 18, 2024

You Still Join University Without Two Principal Passes

Universities are set to reopen next month. First-year students that will be admitted should have scored at least two principal passes at A’level. However, what happens to students who did not get good enough grades? What are the other options to get to university? Conan Businge and Maureen Nakatudde explore the other alternatives

Higher Education Certificate

The first option is a Higher Education Certificate Programme, which was accredited by the National Council of Higher Education (NCHE).

NCHE executive director Prof. Mary Okwakol said the programme is a level 4 qualification of the qualifications Framework. NCHE, in its brochures, explains that this is an intensive programme intended for students who studied sciences and completed the Uganda Advanced Certificate of Education (UACE) or its equivalent. However, the student has not attained good grades to enrol for a degree or diploma programme in a tertiary institution.

A principal pass at A’level is grades A, B, C, D and E, while grade S is a subsidiary and F is a fail. A pass with a distinction or credit in a subject taken at the subsidiary level, such as general paper, sub-maths or computer studies, shall carry one point. A subsidiary pass ranges from grades 1 to 6.

Most advocates of the Higher Education Certificate programme, say it is a great move by the NCHE since failure to get a second principal pass is not an indicator that one is not good enough to excel in studies. NCHE says the Higher Education Certificate programme is an equalising strategy because many such students would not be able to benefit from similar training facilities enjoyed by their contemporaries.

In addition, NCHE, in their circular, explains that the Higher Education Certificate programme is a response to the call by the Government to train institutions to promote science education.

The Higher Education Certificate programme differs from one university to another. In some universities, the programme is referred to as a pre-university or bridging programme to university education.

Students celebrating on their graduation day. There are other options to get university if one did not score two principal passes at A’level

How The Programme Works

Prof. Okwakol says the Higher Education Certificate programme will be one academic year (two-semester programme) that will last 34 weeks. The minimum graduation load is 40 credits.

“A student picks two subjects. If, for instance, you want to become a doctor, you can do chemistry and biology,” Dr Jalia Namugaya, a lecturer at Muni University, said.

If you pass the two subjects, Namugaya says, you can choose a programme. You can become a science teacher, a biochemist, laboratory attendant, a nurse or a doctor.

She adds that the programme is only available for privately sponsored students. Even though it is good, Namugaya says no student who has passed well is considered for government sponsorship under the programme.

After the Higher Education Certificate programme, students who score distinctions and credits are eligible for admission to a relevant degree programme. Those who get passes are eligible for admission on a diploma programme.

NCHE says the scores obtained are transferable from one university to another.

Many private universities offer the programme. These include Victoria University, Team University, Ndejje University, Kabale University, Clarke International University and ISBAT University.

Others are African Renewal University, the University of East Africa and the Mutesa I Royal University. The public institutions that offer the programme include Busitema and Muni universities.

The programme is not yet offered at most public universities since they have not been structured to support students without two principal passes.

Minimum Requirement

A student needs to have the Uganda Certificate of Education or its equivalent. He or she must also have the Uganda Advanced Certificate of Education with at least two subsidiary passes, obtained in principal subjects or its equivalent.

The student can also be with a vocational qualification at level 2 or level 3 of the Uganda Vocational Qualifications Framework.

The other level which can be considered is qualifications equivalent to the Uganda Advanced Certificate of Education as shall be determined by the National Council for Higher Education, in consultation with the Uganda National Examinations Board.

Not For Failures

“Some people may think we are admitting failures. That is not right. No child was born a failure. We are determined to offer every student a great future. We are going to use the Higher Education Certificate programme as a correctional strategy of the wrong modelling students and how they were assessed,” Dr Lawrence Muganga, the vice-chancellor of Victoria University, says.

Kabale University academic registrar Narcicir Tibenderana says it is wrong for people to say this is a course for failures.

“We are giving students another chance to excel,” Tibenderana said in a statement.

Prof. Eriabu Lugujjo, an official from Ndejje University, says the university has also been running the programme for many years.

Lugujjo says the programme is intended to help students access higher education, much as they did not get the two principal passes in their Uganda Advanced Certificate of Education.

“We all have a responsibility as lecturers and trainers of human resource for this country, never to fail people using exams. The success of people should not entirely be determined by exams in one go. We should be more practical to allow students to show more than what they can recall in the examination rooms.”

Students can also learn through apprenticeship to acquire skills. One can also join the university after vocational studies


According to the results from the Uganda National Examinations Board, on the performance in last year’s Uganda Advanced Certificate of Education examinations, there were over 20,000 students who did not score two principal passes. However, many had at least one principal and two subsidiary passes, which can be considered for admission to other tertiary institutions. Of these, at least half of them had done science-related courses.

This would qualify them for the Higher Education Certificate programme.

An analysis of the overall candidates’ performance in examinations shows that many candidates (99.2%) qualified for the award of the Uganda Advanced Certificate of Education. In 2019, they were 98.6%.

With a minimum of the two principal passes required for university admission, 68,013 candidates (69.8%) qualified, which is 2,290 more than those in 2019.

In cases where one principal and two subsidiary passes are considered for admission to tertiary institutions, 89.3% of the candidates will qualify.

There were 98,392 candidates registered for the 2020 Uganda Advanced Certificate of Education examinations, from 1,952 centres, compared to 104,476 candidates from 2,094 centres in 2019.

Candidates who sat the examinations were 97,490, compared to 103,429 in 2019 — a decrease of 5,989 candidates (-5.8%).

Candidates who were registered under the Universal Post O’level Education and Training (UPOLET) programme were 17,647 (17.9%) of the total candidates, compared to 19,361 in 2019. The decrease in the number of candidates at this level has been much more than that at the Uganda Certificate of Education level.


Some parents advise their children to repeat the class, until they score the two principal passes required to join university.

Counsellor Dr Ruth Senyonyi says students should repeat only if they have credible reasons.

“We do not encourage repeating. Unless you ask a child if it is really their fault or if they did not put in enough effort. However, in most cases, students work hard, but still, fail.” If a student did their best but failed, Senyonyi advises them not to repeat, saying they should take up other options. She advises that such students can start at a lower level, for instance, a certificate or diploma and then upgrade to their desired course.

Using O’level Results

If one did not score any principal passes at A’level, there is the option of using their O’level results to study a certificate. Patrick Mwesige, a senior instructor and the head of section, civil and building in the engineering department at Lugogo Vocational Training Institute, says such a certificate is usually a two-year course and is equivalent to the Uganda Advanced Certificate of Education.

“With that certificate, one can start earning a living. You will not look for a job, it will look for you and you are the one to determine the price,” he says.

He adds that, in the past, vocational schools were misconstrued as schools for failures, but these institutions are important because they impart practical skills, which can be applied anywhere.


Uthman Semakula of Al-Mustafa Islamic University College, says one can also consider pursuing a diploma.

“This is usually for two years, after which a student can pursue a degree,” he says.

Mustafa says the advantage of a diploma course is that one can first get employment and then sponsor themselves for further education.


Supposing you have not passed Senior Six and are not interested in pursuing a certificate or diploma? You can consider getting a skill under a different arrangement.

Erisa Kirwana Nkoyoyo, an engineer and instructor at Stone Roofing International Perfection Institute, says a student can learn on the job.

Here, a student starts by discovering what you really want to become. Then seek the person who is good in that area.

“You are paired with an expert in that field to teach you the ins and outs of it,” he says. The only challenge with this option is that the student does not get credentials.

“It is up to you to decide whether you want to get the papers or not. This will help you be more authentic in your field, hence more employment opportunities,” Nkoyoyo says.

(This article was first published in the New Vision on Wednesday, October 13, 2021)

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