ALU founder: Tertiary institutions must break the classroom-workplace barrier

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Swaniker, ALU Founder. / Nadege Imbabazi

African Leadership University is the latest entrant into Rwanda’s higher learning sub-sector. The university with its headquarters in Mauritius is aiming at boosting the quality of tertiary education and equip its graduates with job-relevant and leadership skills.

The institution aims at offering university education which rivals world class institutions but with an African context and relevance.

The New Times’ Collins Mwai had an interview with Fred Swaniker, the founder of the institution to understand the planned roadmap of the institution in Rwanda and East Africa.

Excerpts:

Last year, ALU set up a campus in Kigali, amid what some say is a crowded space in terms of higher learning institutions. What informed the move?

It is the ease of doing business. Rwanda has an efficient government with forward looking policies that encourage innovation. Government institutions such as Rwanda Development Board and Higher Education Council are efficient, professional and receptive to innovation.

We were inspired by the country’s vision and progressive thinking, its emphasis on education and technology, and we wanted to play a role in it.

Our vision as ALU is to create leaders that will build an ‘Africa that works’. Rwanda is an excellent place for Africans to see this in practice. Kigali offers a safe and secure environment for international students. It gives parents the peace of mind and confidence that their children will be safe at studying at ALU in Kigali.

Rwanda has excellent infrastructure. Arriving in the city is seamless and possible from a number of African countries through RwandAir. The immigration regime is very friendly to African students and visitors. Most of them can apply for a visa on arrival. This is something we have found particularly important for students in our MBA programme at the ALU School of Business who need to travel into and out of Rwanda for short periods of time.

Kigali has also given us the facilities we need to succeed as an organisation. There is fast and reliable internet access, something particularly important for teaching and learning at ALU. We have found an excellent home at Kigali Heights, which has world-class facilities.

This is where we will be running the majority of our classes for the next 18-24 months while we are building our long-term campus in Kigali Innovation City. The same is true of the Kigali Convention Centre where we have held key events and held sessions for our MBA programme.

Are there any avenues of cooperation and partnership with local higher learning institutions to boost their capacities?

We are very excited to be a part of the Rwandan tertiary education eco-system. One thing we really look forward to is collaborating with local institutions, particularly the University of Rwanda.

We envision sharing our knowledge and ideas around entrepreneurship, leadership and skills-based learning as well as opening up our doors to all members of the Rwandan university community through a public lecture series that we hope to launch soon and a student exchange programme.

We want to be part of Rwanda’s development. We want to complement the work already being done by higher education institutions in Rwanda.

Most African universities continue to use old curricula and courses to train students which has partly contributed to the mismatch between labour market and job seekers. How is ALU trying to get past this?

In our approach to education, we are focused on ensuring our students do not just learn theory, but also graduate with the set of skills needed by employers. These are skills like critical thinking, leadership, communication, entrepreneurial thinking, project management, and how to use data to make decisions.

All students are given these skills in their first year at ALU, irrespective of what their academic specialty is.

A key part of ALU’s curriculum is the real-world projects we give our students to work on, from their first month on campus. All students also have to undertake a mandatory 4-month internship every year, where they get to acquire practical work experience with various organizations.

This means that each student is expected to graduate with one year of work experience already under their belt.

The whole idea is to break the barrier between the classroom and the workplace. Learning should allow students to understand how ideas work in practice.

Quality education often comes at a high cost, which locks out students who cannot afford it…

Yes, indeed, quality of education is costly, but it can be made affordable. At ALU, we have a unique system of student financing called the Income Sharing Agreement (ISA). We give students funding for all or part of their education according to their needs and irrespective of their background.

When the student graduates and gets a job, they then pay a fixed percentage of their income, (regardless of what they earn), for a fixed period of time (usually ten years) back to the investors who provided the funding.

ISAs are a way for private markets to directly finance tertiary education. This way, even students that would have forfeited university education because of costs can afford to get an education.

The ISAs available at ALU are financed by an independent company known as the African Leadership Finance Corporation (ALFC) which pools investor capital to provide African students with much needed education financing.

In Rwanda and the East African region there has been little or no input by universities to policy making through research, how can this be turned around?

I think above all, research, especially in the African context, would need to be a collaborative effort.

However, I cannot speak authoritatively on the intricacies of the link between university research and public policy in East Africa.

There have been complaints that most graduates from local institutions only have technical skills but fall short in terms of business acumen, which hinders them from making the most out of their skills, what’s ALU’s approach to address this?

Our approach to education is fundamentally hinged on skills-based learning. We focus on cultivating critical thinking and problem solving skills in our students, rather than memorising facts and figures.

We have a very hands-on approach to running our classes. Our students are encouraged to develop new ways of thinking and knowledge application through activities and challenges.

Further to that, one of our core beliefs is that the purpose of a higher education should be to help students ‘learn how to learn’. That is, we need to encourage a habit of lifelong learning where students embrace the notion of ‘just-in-time’ learning, which will allow them to continuously brush up on critical skills as they need it once in the workplace.

The prevailing mode of teaching is the opposite - a ‘just-in-case’ model where knowledge is acquired based on a pre-set curriculum and may depreciate if not applied immediately.

We want to foster in our graduates an insatiable passion to learn, so that they keep reinventing themselves and as a result, continue to be relevant in an ever-changing labour market.

Internships have been said to have not much effect on the student’s academic development, what model would you recommend if internships are to have a greater impact?

We believe that the best way to prepare our students for the world of tomorrow is to break the barriers between the classroom and the workplace. We do this by deliberately embedding real world challenges and tasks into our curriculum.

For example, students spend a big part of their first year learning how to create, plan and pitch a project that speaks to the challenges that major corporations, like IBM, already face. This is immediately put to work.

All students are required to take on internships for at least 4 months each year as part of their graduation requirement. This means they will graduate with 1 full year of work experience, and be ready to ‘hit the ground running’ when they enter full time employment.

We have a career development team that works with them to secure these work placements. We recommend that every student at every university finds a way to do an internship during their university programme.

The idea of the internship is to allow students to understand how the world of work works and how ideas take shape in a practical environment. The model that we employ at ALU maximises the internship period, making it a focal point of their academic career rather than a ‘nice to have’. It will help address the issue of ‘unemployability’ that is caused by misalignment of education with hard skills the market needs.

What would you say are characteristics of ALU graduates?

We are yet to graduate our first class. However, I can tell you about the kind of student we have already enrolled at ALU.

Our students have a very distinct sense of initiative fostered through entrepreneurial thinking and leadership opportunities. Some of them have started their own for-profit ventures, non-profit organizations, and they have pioneered on-campus traditions like our all community Assembly, our Arts Festival and so many other things. In general, they tend to ‘think outside the box’, and are very creative and innovative individuals.

They also have academic initiative. We actively encourage our students to embrace a culture of lifelong education. They have platforms at their disposal that enables them to readily access information, allowing them to take charge of their own education, at their own pace and in their learning style.

Our students are citizens of Africa and citizens of the world. They are change-makers. They are curious about the world around them and they seek to make it better. I am very positive that they will achieve even greater things when they graduate.

editorial@newtimes.co.rw