Carnegie Mellon University (Rwanda): Going beyond degrees

On July 24, the first masters' intake graduated from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) two years after the programme started. Ranked among the 25 top higher learning institutions globally, the university came to Rwanda at the government's invitation, as part of the latter's strategy to achieve an economy that is ICT-driven.
The graduates of Carnegie Mellon University listen to speeches late last month. (Timothy Kisambira)
The graduates of Carnegie Mellon University listen to speeches late last month. (Timothy Kisambira)

On July 24, the first masters’ intake graduated from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) two years after the programme started. Ranked among the 25 top higher learning institutions globally, the university came to Rwanda at the government’s invitation, as part of the latter’s strategy to achieve an economy that is ICT-driven. 

The New Times’ Collins Mwai last week spoke to Michel Bezy, the institution’s Associate Director on the progress made and what lesson local universities can take from them.

Since its inception two years ago, what is CMU-Rwanda’s greatest impact toward the goal of having a knowledge-based economy so far?

When you think of Carnegie Mellon University’s impact, it goes beyond offering masters’ degrees. Last week (July 24), we graduated the first group of 22 students with masters in science and technology. 

Carnegie Mellon is among the top 25 universities in the world, it is the only university of its kind in Africa and Rwandans should maximise the opportunity they have. Having 22 students graduate is a big achievement for the country.

We agreed with the government to contribute to the country’s economic development. ICT being a key driver of the Vision 2020, a world class university will help attract investors as well as supply the required skills.

There are already several investors asking me about the possibility of investing in Rwanda. Their interest in the country is based on the fact that there is a world class university here.

We are also working closely with local businesses. Our students get internship placements in local businesses where they get the opportunity to put into  practice what they have learnt and at the same time acquire practical skills. 

Another major impact is that most of our former students do not go out looking for jobs but  instead start their own companies which are creating more jobs.

What makes graduates from the institution stand out?

At Carnegie Mellon, students learn through practice and this is what creates the difference between our graduates and the rest. Acquisition of knowledgehas six stages; understanding, remembering, applying, analysing, evaluating and finally creating.

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Bezy says their goal is to develop an ICT park in the country. (Timothy Kisambira)

Most campuses in the region get as far as the first two stages; understanding and remembering, students are graded by how well they can remember what they were taught in class.

But at CMU, we go through all the six stages. If for example one is offering a course in Business Strategy, an ordinary university teaches how to do a business strategy and at the end of it you think you can do it.

But when we teach the same course, we have our students develop a business strategy for a real company in Rwanda, they go to the company, meet with the executive, collect data, analyse it and come up with a strategy. At the end they can be sure that they have the necessary skills.

Another difference is that our students are hardworking. They work between 70 and 80 hours a week and this enables them develop efficient work ethic.

The ultimate success of the campus is when you can build capacities of local higher learning institutions to match up to CMU, do you have any initiatives to have local institutions learn from you?

The last thing we can do is be complacent and think we know everything. I appreciate and respect local campuses. They have been here for several years and know a lot that we do not know.

However when we interview many of their students who come to apply for masters programme, we see some gaps.

Together with the Ministry of Education, we have organised meetings with heads of departments of these institutions, where we have been sharing the gaps we identified and at the same time proposing ways to address these gaps.

When we first came here, President Paul Kagame said he did not want us to lower our standards. He wanted us to keep them up and help improve the rest of the institutions. We are ready to intergrate with local universities to make that a reality.

It is in our interest to do so because right now, few students are  qualifying for our course.

Rather than have Rwandan students come to the university in Pittsburgh, why did you choose to have the university put up here considering it is more expensive to run it in this environment?

In the process of putting up the institution, we sent 11 students to CMU in Pittsburg for masters degrees to see how they would fair and they succeeded under difficult conditions. From that we learnt to be careful not to associate the quality of people in a country with the quality of higher education institutions.

The need to have the institution in Rwanda as opposed to Pittsburg is that in this environment, they work on problems in this region. In Pittsburg you get to work on American problems which are different from the ones we have here. When you come back, you can not relate as well to the local problems and solutions required.  

From where you stand, how realistic is Rwanda’s goal to have a knowledge based economy with ICT being amongst the key drivers?

If you look at how the ICT industry developed in the US in the Silicon Valley, it began with a world class university, Stanford University.

The brains were the start of everything not the buildings. Rwanda’s strategy was smarter in that they first brought a world class university here. It may take a bit of time, but slowly there will be a knowledge base that will be able to take on the future of ICT.

If we can get a critical mass of knowledgeable people in ICT, it will attract more knowledgeable people and those with business interest.

People always say there is no money, I say there are no ideas, get ideas together, a proper business plan and the money will come.

There have been complaints that most ICT graduates from local campuses only have technical skills but fall short in terms of business skills which hinders them from making the most out of their skills, what are you doing to bridge this gap?

It is important for local universities to make efforts to provide students with assignments and work related to business.

The skills that are lacking are soft skills. There may not necessarily be courses about the skills but the students should learn them in the course of their learning, an example is by making presentations.

For us we teach these skills in addition to the course and get students to use them often in the course of their learning. By the  time they are through with school they are all rounders.

The private sector should also be more involved in the learning process. For us we involve them in grading the students on the projects they have worked on.

Internships in this country have been said to have much effect on the students’ academic development, what model would you recommend if internships are to have a greater impact?

There is a huge difference in the internship model of most higher learning institutions here and how it should be done.

What happens to most students in this country is that students go to a company and the company is compelled to take them on because they do not have to be paid.

Mostly these companies do not care about the students, the students are left there on their own without knowing what to do. Very often they are asked to undertake tasks that have no relation to what they learnt or what they are trying to learn.

As the person in charge of internships at the campus, I am in contact with 65 companies across Africa asking them for internship placements for our students. They are supposed to go there for three months, work on real problems, develop solutions and participate in the running of the company.

That is agreed on individually with these companies and a Memorandum of Understanding is signed to the effect. The students are also given mentors.

They are placed in a professional environment. They also get a salary, that’s the secret, when you pay them; they deliver better and are motivated to keep working. 

If you do not pay them they won’t care. There is also need to have students gain practical experience.

For us we have major problems submited to us by industries for the students to develop a solution. We have the students divided into groups and work on the problem for an entire semester.

Last year the National Bank of Rwanda asked us to review and redesign the security of their network. To be honest I was a bit scared at first, it was a big responsibility, but they did it well. After undertaking such real problems and solving them, they come out with skills that can be applicable all over the world.

They have real business experience and are efficient in this environment.

With the goal of having ICT contribute toward the country’s development in mind, what is the institution’s way forward?

Starting this August, we are beginning a second master’s programme; Masters in science, electrical and computer engineering.  It is interesting in that it is a programme from Pittsburgh and students can go to three campuses Pittsburgh, Silicon Valley and Rwanda. This year, we  will have some American students coming here.

Our goal is to achieve our agreement with the government of Rwanda to develop an ICT park here; it will be a Silicon Valley of sorts.

Near the Free Trade Zone, the government has a space of about 65 hectares to build an ICT City. We will be the first ones to build there, we will put up a campus there. We have 15 hectares. Soon you will see the product of a world class university integrating with ICT businesses. 

 

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