Are our university graduates universally competitive?

A week ago, this column commented on the status of technical education in Rwanda. From the feedback received, it is only fair and just that we talk about the other side of the coin- higher/university education.

The simplest way to define higher education institutes/universities in Rwanda is that they offer degree certificates. However, just so that we are on the same page, let us define terms and put matters in a proper context. The word ‘University’ is derived from ‘universal’ which itself comes from ‘universe’ which mean earth, life, cosmos. Thus, university degree should be universal- it should be recognized worldwide as complete in fulfilling its objectives and at worst be at par with similar degrees from any other part of the globe- the universe. It must be competitive.

To fulfill these requirements, the education that leads to the degree certificate must be based on, not only academics, but also research and community involvement. These are the three missions of a university.

Rwandan Universities do not do too badly on the academic front. In fact, it seems a foregone conclusion, erroneously, that this is the only mission that the university has. Why else would we be calling them the academia?

Research seems to be the bane of our university system. Mostly, this is presumed to be due to lack of funding.

This is not entirely true however. To properly engage in research as they should, university needs to proactively and innovatively pursue its third mission- community involvement. Universities have to engage with both public and private sectors in delivering their mandate. They have to drop the compartmentalized, atomistic thinking that they have.

If universities saw themselves more and more as a part of the communities that they live in, a part of the whole- they play their roles better. They would seek to engage the other parts. University of Rwanda’s College of Business and Economics, mercifully has began to do this. We congratulate them and urge them to keep engaging the society and other institutions as they have began.

Are our graduates universally competitive? The completely truthful answer is out there. I A scene from meeting between His Excellency the President, Paul Kagame, and students two or three years ago provided useful pointer. I listened to the deliberations over the radio. One question in particular caught my attention. A student asked that the President ensures that they get employment as it seems that employers did not prefer them. They sought protectionism. He got a long approving applause from his colleagues before his question was answered.

The President’s answer, was a fair and practical one; if they are competent he would be happy to ensure that they are employed.

Perhaps the students just suffered the jitters. I have with many local graduates who are quite competent. But as everyone knows the market rules. If, it is even remotely possible that employers would prefer other graduates over ours then we must get to work. We must know what needs to be fixed. In Rwanda, and indeed most African countries; it will most likely be an exposure problem. Many of our students are not exposed to the industries and are not up to date in the current trends in their areas.

The teaching methodologies have to change. Most university education in our parts is theory based. This has led to unfortunate practices like cramming and plagiarism which are only good if one is training parrots. They are indicators that the learners have not understood the very essence of their education. Theory should augment practice…no more. As Professor Jeffrey Sachs puts it they should see it, do it and teach it…much like the medical school training. Heads must compliment hands.

To achieve the level of practicality that universities need, a closer collaboration with Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) would be the best way to achieve quick wins. Ideally one can postulate that a TVET graduate who goes on to degree would be better at their field than a typical university graduate. They are more practical. Universities need to give their student a dose of this practical ‘TVET experience”

One other thing that needs review is our view of university education. The focus on the papers rather than the knowledge is misguided and hurts us badly. It makes graduates ‘paper tigers’… quite literally!

We can change the world, but first we must change our world by changing ourselves by improving how we do things.

The writer is a Project Management and Entrepreneurship Development Consultant based in Kigali.