KIGALI - The path towards an education system that is responsive to the needs of New Rwanda begins with self-examination. President Kagame has challenged all of us to undertake this exercise.
The question can be put this way: what should Rwanda do to increase its growth rate and speed up the pace at which its citizens converge to the level of material well-being set in Rwanda’s socio-economic development agenda encapsulated in Vision 2020?
The relative importance of education for Rwandans is best understood when considered in its context.
Rwanda has no significant natural endowment to kick-start the economy; her greatest asset is the people themselves. This suggests that as a nation, we must invest in people via education, work training, on-the-job training, nutrition, health care, sanitation, and so-on to increase the quality of the labour force.
The linkage between a well-trained workforce and development has been demonstrated elsewhere.
In the high-performance Asian economies, for example, analysts were able to predict - with astonishing levels of accuracy - the rate of economic growth of a country simply by looking at the level of enrolments in primary education in that country, twenty-five years earlier. Simply put, what we do today in terms of education determines our future as a country.
If a better educated labour force is so important to economic growth and our welfare as a society, are we being the best we can?
We must make choices now to change the rate of economic growth and level of development in the future. The evidence, so far, is encouraging.
Rwanda is on track to achieve the MDG goal of universal primary enrolment for boys and girls by 2015. The primary student-teacher ratio of 71:1 – one of the highest in the region - suggests, however, that it is likely that the quality of schooling has suffered as a result of over-crowding of classrooms and ensuing inadequacy of didactic materials and attention from teachers.
This situation is imperfect, yet it is not peculiar to Rwanda.
In 1998, the average number of students in each primary school classroom in India was seventy-two, a number which has since dramatically decreased. The objective must remain a continuous reduction in the number of students per teacher which has been shown to determine the quality of education.
This, of course, is intimately related to the growth of the school-age population. High population growth is not an option.
Government’s intervention to extend basic education to nine years is sound policy to achieve the socially optimum level of education.
While the private benefits of more schooling – higher income as a result of higher level of skills and knowledge that increase individual productivity – are typically the personal motivation for undertaking more years of education, research suggests that, left to our own devices, individual choices as to the level of education to pursue will result in less education on average than is socially desirable.
The commitment of the Government of Rwanda to education is reflected in the high portion of the national budget allocated to the sector - 19.8% (higher than the share allocated to infrastructure, for example, at 19.7%) for the period 2008-2012.
In a world of limited resources, it makes good economic sense as well as contributing to equity to allocate education expenditures to primary education with a goal of universal coverage of male and female, in urban and rural areas, first.
Thus, an average of 34 percent of the education sector budget is allocated to primary education. Secondary education receives about 20 % lagging behind both primary and higher education at an average of 26 %.
At the current stage of Rwanda’s economic development, priority in expenditures for education ought to be focused on basic education, primary plus three, with a specific bias towards sciences, mathematics, and marketable skills both within and outside formal education. This is the base for future growth and development.
The amount allocated to higher education appears to be adequate for our means.
University-level teaching and research requires investment in infrastructure and training that cannot be mobilised immediately. It is therefore commendable that alternative avenues for financing tertiary education such as SFAR are in place.
In the same vein, incentives must continue to target the scientists, engineers and technicians of tomorrow.
There must be clear policies that reward enrolment in these disciplines that are needed for the country to move forward.
Professors, practitioners and students of sciences should enjoy a corresponding consideration and status in our society via fellowship, scholarship, employment, salaries, benefits, and so on.
This is important if we are to create the dynamic knowledgeable pool of technologically able individuals to begin the process of knowledge transfer, acquisition, adaption and usage so much required for Rwanda to take-off.
We must continue to pay great attention to how best to secure knowledge of the paths investment should take for maximum socio-economic return.
This, we do through learning and discovery, i.e. through continuous education and experimentation.