News / Africa

British University Drops Uganda Ties in Dispute Over Gay Rights

A British university has just dropped its connection with Uganda, citing the unacceptable limitations imposed by Uganda’s stance against homosexuality. Buckingham University had been accrediting courses at Victoria University in Kampala, but the British institution pulled out this week.

“Why fly to Europe when there are UK (United Kingdom) degrees next door?” reads an ad for Victoria University, a prestigious private university in Kampala, Uganda. But now the UK degrees are no more, since Victoria’s British partner, Buckingham University, announced this week that it would stop accrediting Victoria’s courses because of Uganda’s stance against gay rights.

Neither university was available for comment. But in a statement, Buckingham said they had become “increasingly concerned about the proposed legislation in Uganda on homosexuality and in particular the constraints on freedom of speech in this area.”

Homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda. But a bill currently before parliament would make the penalties even more stringent, criminalizing “promotion” of homosexuality and punishing certain acts with life in prison.

On its website, Victoria University states that “there are fundamental differences between the two nations’ respective laws regarding equality and diversity, which cannot be reconciled.”

200 Students Left in the Lurch

The move leaves around 200 students in the lurch. Victoria University, which opened one year ago, had claimed to offer a British standard of education. With annual tuition fees ranging from $3,500 to $7,000, it is one of the most expensive universities in the country.

But one prospective student, who had hoped to study communications, explains that the British affiliation made it worth the money.

“I wouldn’t say that we have bad universities, but then we are looking for more fields, greener pastures, better education. I was dealing with this hoping that afterwards I could apply for a course in the UK and get a better job back in the UK, not really here in Uganda. It would have made it easier,” the student said.

Victoria’s chancellor told journalists that the two institutions had disagreed about whether to include a clause in Victoria’s statute banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Victoria University refused to include the clause, claiming it had to comply with Ugandan law.

Ugandan Minister for Ethics and Integrity, Simon Lokodo, says he supports Victoria for standing by its morals.

“I want to thank them for not accepting to be blackmailed and forced to adapt a culture that is not in their liking,” Lokodo said.

Lokodo adds that when foreigners bring their cultural expectations with them, such international relationships cannot work.

“And it will be true with anybody else who wants to attach friendship, or support to brothers and sisters, to imposition of culture, of norms, of prescriptions, that are not acceptable to the destination culture or community. It’s the same thing that I’m telling to my brothers and sisters from the donor community. It’s really blackmail if you say you are not going to support Ugandans because Ugandans are not comfortable with gays,” Lokodo said.

The majority of Ugandans may be uncomfortable with homosexuality. But Ugandan lawyer Denis Kusaasira says Victoria University is wrong to claim that tolerance or employment of gays is illegal.

“Just like it’s not an offence to employ a convict of any other offence, like theft or murder,” Kusaasira said.

Avoiding the issue

Most international companies, he says, prefer to simply avoid the issue of homosexuality, complying with the law without making any explicit statements one way or another.

“If the law is silent on it, and it’s not compelling international companies to have anti-gay policies in their employment manuals, companies, I think, would rather keep it internal which side they fall on, whether gay or anti-gay. Right now there is no policy on this,” Kusaasira said.

Kusaasira says even companies that support gay rights would find it hard to say so publicly for fear of alienating their clients. Victoria University may have misunderstood the law, he adds, but their stance was more likely to have been a business decision.

“Since their business project requires acceptance by the society, they may want to play with the majority of Ugandans, and come out openly and say ‘we don’t support gays.’ So if it comes to make a choice where to take your child, as a parent, you’d comfortably take them to Victoria University,” Kusaarira said.

It remains to be seen whether this decision will pay off. But in the meantime, Victoria has promised to offer the affected students other alternatives for completing their degrees, either in Uganda or abroad.

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