18 December 2012

Rwanda: Nursing Students in Protest Over National Exams

Gitwe — Uncertainty engulfed nursing students at the Institut Supérieur Pédagogique de Gitwe (ISPG) last week following a decision instructing them to repeat their final year to be able to sit for the national examination which, officials say, will pave way for them to be issued with their degrees.

We had budgeted for our studies and asking us to pay for an additional year would be an act of injustice and unfair

The decision was reached following discussions which lasted for months between the students, the school, the Ministry of Health and other concerned parties.

On Wednesday, last week, three meetings were held separately at the school premises and at the Southern provincial headquarters, both aimed at finding a lasting solution to the problem.

The first two meetings, first between provincial authorities and delegations from the Ministry of Health and the National Council of Nurses and Midwifery (NCNM), and then after with ISPG authorities, were held behind closed doors.

For about seven hours on Wednesday last week, authorities remained behind closed doors discussing the issue and trying to find a unanimous decision.

The meeting was chaired by the Southern Province Governor, Alphonse Munyantwali.

At that time, the affected students waited outside impatiently. Some discussed in small groups expressing fear and concerns for their fate.

Following the meeting which ended at around 2pm, the students were offered a one-week period to register.

That means they will have to return to class and repeat the year.

And this comes as a result of the infighting which started late in October when 150 nursing students, who were due to graduate with A1 degrees this year, declined to sit for a national examination which would allow them to be registered with the National High Council of Nursing and Midwifery.

At that time, the students accused the school management of informing them about the exams just a week before they were supposed to kick off. The students claim this was unfair and unacceptable since they needed time to prepare for the exams and they could not do that with just a seven days notice.

It was the first time students at the faculty of nursing sciences at ISPG were due to sit for the exam, The New Times established. The exam is a requirement before one is recognised as a nurse in Rwanda and across the region, according to NCNM officials.

The issue was settled on Wednesday but many among the students were left disappointed.

"I am not happy. We are being victimised again. This is unfair," a woman, who asked not to be named told this paper.

"We were expecting our degrees and see now what is happening. They are telling us to take another year at our expense," another student said, with anger.

Future in balance

The meeting decided, among others, that all the 150 students who did not sit the exam will have to take it as a way of fulfilling all the requirements for them to qualify as professional nurses.

Consequently, the students will not be issued with degrees as they were expecting, it was concluded.

According to Julie Kimonyo, the National Council for Nurses and Midwives Registrar, a nurse cannot practice without sitting and successfully passing the exam.

"You cannot practice at any health facility without seating for the exam and passing it successfully," she told The New Times.

Earlier, she had told students that issuing them with degrees would look absurd as they cannot practice anywhere.

"You have not fulfilled all requirements for a nursing degree," she said to the disappointment of the students.

But the students, some of whom are working as associate nurses in various health facilities, contested the decision. They allege that some have been employed in various parts of the country without necessarily passing the exam.

The New Times could not independently verify the claim.

Other decisions taken in line with efforts to tackle the issue include the submission and presentation of the students' dissertation papers. The school was instructed to set a new deadline for the exercise which would have been completed months ago.

The school will also issue academic transcripts to students and any other document they would judge to be an Inalienable right to students currently. But, it was made clear that degrees will not be issued as of now until the student have sat for the exam next year.

Possibly, the students will have to repeat the year.

The last decision triggered reactions of discontent with many of the students asking who would foot the bill for the "additional year" they will have to study.

"In consultation with the school management, you will sit and discuss ways of solving the issue," Munyantwali told the students.

But the answer left them more concerned.

A number of students interviewed told this newspaper they will not accept to pay for the 'additional year', blaming the school management for failing to provide information about the exam on time.

A list of complaints elaborated by the students requests the school authorities to, among others, desist from charging extra school fees and providing them with money to pay for accommodation and meals.

"We are victims and we should not bear the consequences," the students wrote. We had budgeted for our studies and asking us to pay for an additional year would be an act of injustice and unfair". Each of them pays more than Rwf900,000 a year in school fees, the students said.

How it unfolded

According to the affected students, the current crisis is a result of 'misinformation allegedly by the school authorities.

The students allege that the school kept telling them that they will not have to sit for the exam until October 22 when it issued an announcement informing them that they would have to.

The exam, which comprises theory and practicals, started on October 29. On that day, they turned up but declined to sit for the exam, alleging that they had not got enough time to prepare.

"Everyone took their decisions on their own and many decided not to sit," explains one of them, who spoke to us on condition of anonymity.

Out of 158 students, only 8 sat the exams.

"The issue is not that we feared exams, but we could not sit for an exam on such a short notice," one student said.

Thereafter, the students petitioned the Ministry of Health pleading for assistance to tackle the issue.

A number of correspondences were exchanged between them, the Minister of Health, Dr Agnes Binagwaho, and other ministry officials. The New Times saw some of them.

In some of the documents, the ministry seem to put blame on the school by alleging that they informed them as early as July.

Efforts to talk to the school management were futile as its leaders declined to comment, saying they would comply with the decisions of Wednesday's meeting.

However, despite the meeting's conclusion it seems that the problem is yet to be solved as students have vowed to press on until their grievances are addressed.

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