THE envisaged University of Rwanda, which will see at least seven public universities merged, will open next academic year (September 2013), if the law establishing it is passed by parliament. The New Times' Felly Kimenyi spoke to Prof Geoffrey Rugege, the Executive Director of the Higher Education Council, about the advantages of this proposal, the quality of the academic staff and the graduates churned out and brain drain, among other issues. Below are the excerpts.
The New Times (TNT): You may start by briefly telling us about the planned University of Rwanda...
Geoffrey Rugege (GR): Let us start by talking about the rationale behind the proposed merger of public institutions of higher learning. Paramount of all is the kind of impact we wanted the University of Rwanda to make on the Rwandan society. Putting our seven institutions of public learning in that same analogy, in an institution that will have almost 40,000 students and the academic staff pooled together, we will definitely have numerous advantages.
The way people see you is very important to the impact you will make in society. So what we want to make is a highly regarded institution than all the other small institutions individually. That is the sort of principle that says that the sum is greater than the parts. So, if we have this big institution that has over 40.000 students, other people outside Rwanda will regard it as much stronger than the individual universities. If you take KIST (Kigali Institute of Science and Technology) for example that teaches science and technology, and NUR (National University of Rwanda) that teaches sciences too, you are duplicating resources.
Now suppose each of the institution specialises, like KIST takes technology and NUR takes sciences for example, you are going to merge the resources and manage them better than if you had the individual institutions.
In terms of image, even to the people who do the ranking, this will be a major boost because the number of students is also considered while doing the ranking. It will also enable academic supervision and resource management since the lecturers are going to be more specialised.
In terms of financing, we hope that institutions will be guided in making the curriculum; they will be guided according to priority areas determined by the developmental needs of our country.
TNT: Looking at the structure of the new university, it seems not much is going to change in terms of what is being taught at the different institutions that will be merged...
GR: We are not dissolving any institution. They are going to stay where they are but they will be colleges of the university. If you have a pyramid, on top of the pyramid is the Chancellor or Vice Chancellor of the university and the eight institutions--one more that will be created, will be colleges that make the whole. So it will be done in a way that resources will be better managed but no institution will be dissolved. So the teachers and students are going to be re-aligned for effectiveness.
TNT: What level of autonomy are these colleges going to retain?
GR: The University is going to have the autonomy; the colleges are going to be answerable to the university. It's a sense of belonging. They will belong to one institution. If you see the level of autonomy, the institutions don't have autonomy now anyway. They are going to belong to an institution that has academic autonomy from government and the financial autonomy that universities normally have anywhere in the world.
So after the government has given the finances, it is going to give the freedom to it so as to design its curriculum or pay its staff according to their expertise and so on.
TNT: So the curricula offered in these colleges will be changed?
GR: The colleges are going to be more specialised. Suppose Mutara Polytechnic has a department of communication and at the National University of Rwanda you have a department of communication, you are duplicating resources. What will happen is, you are going to have one programme that is taught by one institution and the others will teach other disciplines. So students will want to go to that institution that has that specific programme.
TNT: When you look at the quality of the universities in the country, how would you grade the quality of universities both public and private?
GR: We monitor the quality of universities. We have set standards that universities must follow and we do monitor them.
I think the best way to approach that question is to approach the public, the job market, and the employers.
What do they think about our students who graduate from our institutions? We have what we call graduate tracer studies. We go to workplaces to find out how they are doing. So it is mainly the public that will judge the quality of our products.
The people who say that the quality of our students is not good have not conducted any kind of research to base their judgment on facts. We don't want to be accused of being a bad product when you have no proof of that. We want documentations. I have heard all that, but I want them to give me evidence.
However, we also recognise that Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda may be better than us but they were established earlier for example Makerere (University of Uganda) has been around for many decades; others do have greater financing than we do for example university of Nairobi. So much as we do want quality; we do recognise that we need time to grow.
TNT: Speaking about quality, it goes with human resource; do you think we have the best lecturers/tutors in our institutions?
GR: No, we do not. I recognise that. We don't have enough PhD's and they are quite a few masters at our faculties. So there is a gap there. Anywhere you go especially in developing countries, we prefer to have a ratio of 30% PhD's and 70% masters at university level. That is to get bachelor's degrees, so that undergraduates are not taught by a bachelor's holder.
So our benchmark when we go to audit institutions, we look at that ratio. And it is being largely respected. So in case of employing a bachelor's holder, it's at the level of tutorial assistant being supervised by a masters holder at least.
TNT: There is talk that the curricula of our universities are not in tandem with the labour market requirements. What is your take on this?
GR: That is correct. That is why for example students who are financed by the government must study disciplines that are government priorities. That is courses like medicine, science and technology, agriculture, engineering and so on. Now, if you want to do courses like moral philosophy, sociology and so on, the government is not going to give you a scholarship, because it is not a government priority and we have limited resources.
So the way we monitor whether the knowledge the students get is relevant and current, we want to prevail on universities to have their external examiners. So a lecturer will be giving out an exam and what students score will be reviewed by another teacher outside that institution. For example we have external examiners coming from South Africa, Scotland to look at our medical graduates and review them and see if they do meet the standards of a student graduating from South Africa or Scotland.
It is expensive but that's the only way you can know that the products you are producing are up to the world market. This is already being done.
We give the institutions a set of regulations; we cannot monitor them every day. And when we go to do audits, we ask institutions how many external examiners have come in to do the reviews so that we know if they are doing it.
TNT: There is a big problem of lack of the culture of publishing by academia of our country...what is the biggest problem here?
GR: Under the University of Rwanda, one of the areas of focus is going to be research. And obviously you cannot have publications without research. We are going to put emphasis that professors at the other universities do. We want it to be a requirement for a lecturer in order to be promoted. We know it is a problem because finding time when you are teaching is not easy. We have a shortage of lecturers. Sometimes they don't have time to do the research at all.
When you have a strong institution, one of the strength will be attracting funds to be used by the professor to hire an assistant so that the assistant can do the physical teaching and the professors may have the time do the research. And that is one of the benefits that the University of Rwanda is going to give us. We also encourage institutions to start academic journals so that lecturers can publish there.
TNT: Lets talk about brain drain, we have bright students who excel at university and are retained as tutorial assistants but when they are sent abroad for further studies, they remain in those countries, what do you have to say?
GR: We have students who get government sponsorships or even sponsor themselves but stay abroad. These countries might pay better than we do here. For example I used to leave in the United States and my children grew up there. I stayed in Uganda before I left for US. I stayed there for 30 years because I was paid better. So young people are going to follow money love it or hate it.
So it is going to be a question of growing our economy and be able to pay our graduates enough so that they are attracted to come and stay.
It is a question of whether this economy is going to grow and be able to support the activities, like other countries like UK and others. Our economy is on the correct path so we should be able in a few years to retain our professionals.
TNT: How is Rwanda fairing in terms of adjusting the education sector towards the East African integration?
GR: As I said we have a set of standards and these standards are benchmarked by the Inter-university Council for East Africa. That is the regional accrediting body. So we align our standards to the rest of the region and make sure that they are close to the standards elsewhere in the world.
We also try to benchmark them to the Commonwealth standards now that we belong there too. This will ensure that our graduates are not left behind since we have a harmonised curriculum that they all go through, so the harmonisation is going on.
TNT: Why is it that our universities attract a small number of regional students compared to the other universities in the region?
GR: The issue of attraction of students is a question of perception. When they perceive that our institutions are good, they are going to come. So it is going to be the duty of the Ministry of Education, and this council to see that the perception changes. And that is part of these efforts of creating the One University. That way, even during the ranking, we will call upon the people in charge to see the quality of staff, the better number of students, and the good curriculum. This will improve our ranking.
TNT: Any major challenge that higher learning institutions in this country are faced with?
GR: One of the major challenges that we face is lack of enough qualified staff in terms of lecturers. As you said we have a challenge of brain drain. Even internally, we end up having professors leaving the universities to go to other institutions of the government because they pay better. That is a challenge.
Then we have a problem of students not managing their career better. For example students who go to the colleges don't feel they are on the same standard as those who go to university.
But sometimes the technical disciplines are more valuable than the degrees like if you go to a hotel, you will need good food prepared by a good cook who went to a college and got just a diploma. If you want jobs you have to prepare yourself for the job market.
We have a department in the ministry called Workforce Development Agency responsible for planning and enforcing the technical courses. We want people to stop having a perception that having a technical skill is less valuable than having a degree. We want them to respect the value of work and labour.
TNT: Cabinet approved your retirement last month, when do you intend to start your retirement, for how long have been in the academia and what will you do after retirement?
GR: It is true I am quitting the public service and the academia as a whole. I am an old man I have been teaching for almost 40 years. Before coming to Rwanda four years ago, I was in the United States where I was a teacher for over 32 years. As for what I intend to do, I will take a complete break and perhaps do some writing.
TNT: Your concluding remarks?
GR: The radios and TVs are saying that schools in Rwanda are not so good and so you find people going to schools in Uganda or Kenya.
We want the general public to change the perception of our institutions. So we have to believe in ourselves that we have the best products. We want to do the best that we can and in all sectors.