The National University of Rwanda like any other institution of higher learning in the country has been in the news over the alleged poor quality of graduates produced there.
In an exclusive interview with The New Time’s Paul Ntambara, the university ‘s director of quality education Professor Roger Sapsford shares how the institution is working to address the concerns raised.
Q.Could you please share with our readers the background to the new system of teaching and learning adopted at the National University of Rwanda?
The new system is based on the Bologna system which is a module system where you get what is called credit accumulation and transfer, in other words the degrees of the world (except the USA) are rated by levels and the size of work.
You can take your first year somewhere and if it fits, go somewhere else for the second.
That was the original driving force. The essential thing is that at the three stages, the degrees are of the same quality, they call them cycles; Honours degree, Master’s degree and Doctoral degree.
If you belong to the Bologna club or if you are aiming to that standard, you are aiming that anyone will accept your degree as being of the same standard. That is the club we are trying to join.
How is the new system different from the old one?
The system we have been under, the system across Africa, the system in the UK when I was at University is what we call knowledge transfer – I give it to you probably by writing it on the chalk board, you copy it down and at exam time we see how much you can remember it.
This produces people who are ultimately quite good at passing exams; it does not produce people who are good at doing things.
The core of the new system is the learning outcome. What can you do after a module, a programme that you could not do before?
It is a different attitude to what you are doing with students and a different style of teaching or learning management.
The whole principle of the quality system is that you get better, each year you try to improve what you are doing.
What changes does the new system bring to the teaching and learning process?
We started the new sort of degree in 2007 with first year students. There is less teaching in the new degree, more time for students to do things on their own.
As students get less teaching, they will have less assessment as well. Across the world people over teach and over assess.
If you want students who can do things for themselves, you have to give them time to do it and you have to put them in a position to do it.
Your assessment has not to be little tests of can you remember what I said in my lecture last week.
Some of them have to do bigger things; research, do an essay, do a group presentation, plan a piece of research or social intervention, go out and observe that sort of thing.
The lecturers are changing; they are learning new ways of doing things, trying to find more interesting things to do. They are tending to teach less, tending to get students to do more by themselves.
It is not less work but it is less routine work. You spend more time thinking about what students can do and looking at what they have done.
We are trying to get resources for them. We have very good electronic access to journals which we can access for free and other journals we subscribe to.
The new system posses a big threat to the practice of employing visiting lecturers, how are you incorporating this category of people?
We are beginning to ‘kill’ the visiting lecturer. Here we have been very dependent on visiting lecturers because we now have around 450 staff and about 150 are abroad doing Master’s and PhD degrees.
So about a third of our teaching force has been substituted by other people and there have been a lot of people coming from across the country and across the world.
We are cutting that down because it is a curse. We have some very good people that way but they mess up the timetable and they are less controllable in terms of quality.
So where we are short of somebody where possible we will use somebody from the same department and pay them overtime.
If we can’t we will try to get an internal consultant from inside the University. We will though have to get some people from outside for skills we can not cover.
There are concerns that people charged with disseminating knowledge (lecturers) lack the capacity to do so effectively. What is your take on that?
It may be true in some cases, it would true in other Universities in some cases. We are tightening our exam procedures; we are bringing in external examiners to look the standards being applied.
We are doing transparency checks. Every module leader is required to produce a booklet that says something about the course, what the learning outcomes are so that students know at the beginning what the lecturer is gong to demonstrate; it is sort of a contract.
How are you embracing the use of English as a medium of instruction at the University?
We were by government decree a bi-lingual University last year, a while before that we were a francophone University.
We are providing support for people who are still learning English , some effort has had to be shown this year, you have at least got to have your power point in English even if you are teaching in French.
If you possibly can, you get your assessment in English. If you can’t do it then you have got to work in French but next year we would expect you to do that in English.
By the year after I would expect all communication in class to be in English except in subjects where it has not got to be.
Those in Law have to use Kinyarwanda from time to time because it is one of the languages of the courts and Law and the Doctors need some bit of Kinyarwanda and French. We respect the policy and we are trying hard to implement it.
What is the main bottleneck to embracing the system of teaching and learning?
Habit is the issue basically; habit is to do things the way you always did, students were never taught to think for themselves at school unless if they went to one of the very few schools in Rwanda so they have got to learn do this at University. Some of our lecturers even if they are not so old have been doing things by ‘yellow’ notes and chalk-talk courses for quite some while and the change is not coming automatically.
They need a lot of encouragement and management by deans and by heads of departments. Whatever you are used to feels easier but it is not, new system is easier. It is a revolution; it’s a massive period of change.
Will this new system translate into better graduates from your institution?
We are training the sort of people that I would want to take on a Master’s course, the sort of people that MTN would want to employ or government ministries.
At the moment there is a tendency for NGO’s and commercial companies when they come to bring staff with them because they don’t trust ours, we have to fix that.