EAC seeks 'common borders' for education

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Graduates at IPRC Kigali toss their mortarboards during a graduation ceremony earlier this year. EAC is seeking to harmonise education system in partner states. (File)

The East African Community (EAC) is looking into the adoption of a common education protocol to ease movement of learners and teachers within the region. 

Regional experts behind the plan say the creation of a common EAC Higher Education Area (EACHEA) implies that qualifications will be appropriately recognised in all partner states both for continuation of studies as well as in the labour market.

It means that the education system in the five partner states will be harmonised, comparable, and compatible, thus boosting knowledge and skills development.

When the EAC is declared as an EACHEA in November, according to Prof. Mayunga Nkunya, the executive secretary of the Inter-University Council for East Africa (IUCEA), the most important development will be the elimination of the disparity in the national education systems.

“We are working on it with the EAC Secretariat because all instruments to enable the EAC to operate as a common higher education area have been developed,” Nkunya said last week.

“And I must say that we are the first region in Africa to have devised this kind of system. Once operational, all these challenges which we are seeing in movement of students from one partner state to another will end.”

The main aspects already put in place as the region readies for EACHEA include a regional quality assurance system, in place since 2007.  

Apart from the policy level guideline, on the ground, practitioners have a handbook with guidelines on how best one should practice quality assurance.

At institutional level, for example, Dr Joseph Cosam, the head of quality assurance at IUCEA, said they are looking at the academic programmes and at particularly what elements should determine whether they acceptable or of desired quality. 

The EAC Common Market Protocol permits easy mobility of learners and labour.

This is why, among others, it was deemed necessary to set up a framework to enable mutual recognition of academic and professional qualifications across the region.

A regional policy framework for mobility of students and staff is already in place, said Dr Cosam. It provides for a mechanism for a second year student, for example, studying in Rwanda to go and study another semester in Uganda or Kenya or Tanzania or Burundi and then come back and continue with studies in Kigali and go on to graduate.

Dr Cosam added: “It also provides for mobility of lecturers so that, in the region, we continue to share especially since one of the challenges we face is that we don’t have adequate professors in our universities. That crossbreeding and sharing of knowledge and experiences also provides for the integration of the region.”

In April, the Council of Ministers approved another essential tool, the East African Qualifications Framework for Higher Education (EAQFHE).

In the EAQFHE, there are provisions including an East African credit system that incorporates a credit accumulation and transfer structure such that a student can accumulate credits in one institution and transfer them in another institution in any other EAC country.

The EAQFHE recognises “prior learning” in a bid to cut on the wastage of human resources through dropout. 

Prof. Nkunya said people’s knowledge will be recognised and equated with the qualifications obtained through the formal system and then pegged at a particular level.

“A person studying basic education in primary school, then after four or five years drops out, but when this person goes into the world out there, he is not useless. He could be a competent farmer growing tomatoes and through experience learned how to grow the best tomatoes. That is knowledge gained through experience.”

Besides, instead of considering the number of years a student spends at university, the new guiding parameter will be the expected learning outcomes no matter how long it takes a student to acquire knowledge.

No similar curriculum  

For the past eight years, IUCEA, the strategic institution of the EAC responsible for coordinating the development of higher education and research, has worked to develop systems for harmonisation of higher education in order to transform the region into an EACHEA.

At the beginning, the process initially focused on the development of a regional quality assurance system for higher education by harmonising the national systems in a common regional framework.

But when the EAC Common Market Protocol came into force, in 2010, the process was broadened, in order to establish systems that would facilitate mutual recognition of education and training systems, and qualifications attained in the region. 

Dr Innocent Mugisha, the executive director of Rwanda’s Higher Education Council (HEC), explained that at national level, EACHEA means students “are expected to have done programmes that had bench marks that were agreed upon.”

It will not imply a similar curriculum in the five countries, he said, but programmes in each country will meet common and agreed upon minimum requirements.

Mugisha said: “If you are doing a programme here (in Rwanda) and another student does a similar programme in any of the other partner states, the benchmarks are expected to be the same but it does not necessarily mean that in the course outline, the wording of the syllabus is the same.”

Harmonisation, according to experts, does not mean each university or country will operate a uniform system, as this would stifle competitiveness, uniqueness and innovativeness of universities and countries. 

They agree that by harmonising the education system, EAC is also promoting competitiveness, uniqueness and innovativeness among universities and countries, such that while universities benchmark their systems and programmes to the basic regional standards and guidelines, they also uphold uniqueness in terms of programme specialisation, curriculum innovativeness and delivery approaches.

Harmonised fees not feasible

On harmonising tuition fees, Prof. Nkunya shed light on what he sees as a misconception.

“Some people tend to think that the movement of students from country A to country B is impeded because of the disparity in fees. I don’t agree with that,” he said. “The fees issue has been handled in our opinion, in an improper way.”

The most important parameters are the systems, he said. The current “improper” thinking is that if a student coming from partner state A wants to study in partner state B, they should be paying same fees as the local student in partner state B.

“We as experts in higher education say it will not work because it has not considered the disparity of economies. I am a student in country A whose GDP is half the GDP of country B, my purchasing power is half the purchasing power of a person in country B, which means the fees I am paying are half  what I would pay in country B,” Prof. Nkunya said.

“If you want me to move into country B and pay like a local student, I am going to be paying twice as much as I am at home. I will not go. The only thing that can work is to have a system that is handling this disparity,” Prof. Nkunya said.

Once proper systems are up and running, he emphasised, the movement of students will be “unprecedented.”