The news on education last week was dominated by two events - one exciting, the other unpleasant. The first was the selection of students to join secondary school in Form 1 and Form 4.
The second was the decision by Rwanda’s public universities to discontinue first year students who had no government bursary. The two could not have been more different.
Admission into Form 1marks a big jump in the educational progress of a child. For most it is a second weaning. They are weaned from parental shield.
They leave home to go and live at school for three months at a stretch and learn to do things on their own, acquire some social habits, get a taste of freedom and learn how to manage it, get a sense of responsibility, and hopefully acquire some education. It is an exciting time of adventure, discovery and development.
Those entering Form 4 are starting on a period in their education when they begin to focus on a definite career. It is a time of both physical and academic maturity.
For both categories of students, it is a time of joy, excitement, celebration and hope. The event expressed the optimism that often marks the beginning of a journey whose end promises rich rewards.
The second event was the shocking news, and the accompanying confusion, that hundreds of students had been discontinued barely two weeks after they had started classes. The reason for this horrible news was that Students Financing Agency of Rwanda (SFAR) could not pay their fees.
For the affected students what should have been the crowning moment of their education turned into a period of anguish and anxiety. Some official(s) put a damper on their optimism.
The universities’ action started a blame game that we have come to expect in situations where several agencies are involved.
Students blamed their expulsion on the government which had allowed them to enrol in the universities when it was not prepared to pay for their education.
The ministry of education said it had done no such thing, that there were rules and regulatons and criteria governing students’ admission and financing that should have been strictly followed.
It transpired that a list of students eligible for admission to public universities had been published on the basis of which students had enrolled. They jumped on this to show that SFAR had led them to believe that they would be paid for.
No thanks, SFAR protested. The list was not theirs. It had been published by the Rwanda National Examinations Council.
The examinations council said yes they had put out the list, but that it had nothing to do with bursaries.
And so the buck-passing went on. The agencies involved in the problem issued statements seeking to exoneratethemselves from blame, but made little attempt to solve the problem.
All this should not have happened. However, it exposed a number of shortcomings that must be addressed if a similar situation is to be avoided in future.
In the first place the universities should not have allowed students to enrol without proof that they had the means to finance their education. This is normal practice in universities around the world.
That they did so on the assumption that the state would pay betrays a lack of information about existing procedures or inexcusable administrative lapses. Either way they have caused embarassment to tertiary educatinal institutions and put in jeorpardy the education of hundreds of young Rwandans. Yet this could have been avoided if they had stuck to the requirement that student seking admission show financing ability.
Secondly, SFAR should devise more effective ways of administering the students’ loan scheme instead of passing the buck to others. They could, for instance, consider this.
There is a full year between the publication of students’ examinations results and enrolment in universities. SFAR could issue loan application forms immediately results are announced – sometime in February – so that they have enough time to procees them.
By August – at the latest – they should have completed this and then publish the list of students who have obtained government loans. That would then give time to those who do not qualify enough time to look for alternative financing. That way the current problem would not arise.
The national examinations council should continue to publish names of those who qualify for admission into public universities. This is their rsponsibility.
It should be made clear, however, that eligibility for university admission is not the same as eligibility for government financing.
In the event that a problem similar to the current one occurs, there should be a coherent public relations plan to explain what has happenend.
The current plight of the expelled students has exposed the absence of a communicaton policy in the agencies that were involved.
They were caught unprepared and had no message, or if they had any, were unable to communicate it. This goes to show the little regard that is given to information and communication management in government.
If an effective communication strategy had existed, the problem should have been defused earlier. Which cries for placing public relations management in government departments at senior management level.
It is also clear that government departments must learn to do what has become a common refrain in management seminars – proactive as opposed to reactive management. What we saw last week was a classic example of being reactive.
It is a method of work so ingrained in public service that it would need a major upheaval to change. Perhaps the students’ case is of sufficient magnitude as to cause significant upset in the smug administrative attitude.
The usual pretext for not being proactive is the adherence to rules and procedure. In plain language that pretext translates as shirking responsibility. Buck-passing, in turn, is a typical case of shirking responsibility. Both are examples of bad management.