Just to pick from the issue recently raised by the Parliamentary Standing Commission on education, ICT, Culture and Youth why students at the University of Rwanda (UR) are no longer defending their dissertations, a policy that only applies in private higher learning institutions.
The policy of dissertation defence at the University of Rwanda (UR) was scrapped a couple of years ago. The justification has probably been to focus much attention on improving research skills at master’s level (at postgraduate studies). Nonetheless, this is unpersuasive justification. Given that dissertation defence wasn’t a serious complaint to the learners, nor to the government in terms budget implication. In my view, the policy needs to be reconsidered given its positive impact on education quality. A couple of questions may be asked: what was the objective of that policy to the learners? Was there any negative impact to the learners? And, if so, what is the best practice? I’m unsure whether discarding the policy had a majority support from those who benefited from it.
Currently, final year university students simply write their dissertations and submit them to relevant departments, and then wait for evaluation results. Today, a student can write dissertation singly or they can write it jointly for those who are in the same discipline.
Dissertation defence is one of the tools to gauge a student’s ability to conduct independent research and defend it. Talking from experience, the policy encourages ownership of research findings to a larger extent. Whenever they finish their dissertations, they are given a platform to present it before a designated panel and entertain questions on the scope of their work. There’s a big difference between learners who obtained research skills from undergraduate level and those who acquired these skills for the first time at postgraduate level. Students are unlikely to be deeply absorbed in this assignment because no requirement for presentation. Naturally, if a person has less, or no, accountability there’s a tendency of treating things lightly. But, if students bear in mind that they’re accountable for their findings they try their best to have the best score.
To date, there’s an intractable challenge where students hire people to write for them their research findings, figuratively dubbed in Kinyarwanda as gudodesha. Frankly speaking, this is a serious deficiency in students’ ability to learn how to do research. This is not a peculiar challenge in UR but across all higher learning institutions. It needs to be rooted out otherwise it retards students’ ability to develop research skills. In fact, gudodesha emboldens plagiarism, which is as good as fraud. It is critical for universities to take care that proper attribution is given for the existing ideas upon which their own thinking (and writing) is built.
Besides, presentation trains learners to develop public speaking skills. To most students, dissertation defence causes nervousness and panic. The good thing is that, with thorough preparation and practice, learners can overcome nervousness and perform exceptionally well. Research skills aren’t generated supernaturally but by practice. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect. However, it doesn’t mean presentation of dissertation alone will equip a learner with the required skills. It must have started right from earlier years of undergraduate level, by regular presentations in front of a class, and there are plenty of situations where such public speaking skills can help you advance one’s career and create opportunities. Dissertation defence enables students to develop the ability to communicate which is the most important goal that communicative language teaching aims to reach. Students need a lot of opportunity to practice language in situations which encourage them to communicate their needs, ideas and opinions. Contemporary society demands graduates who are proficient in oral communication skills in order to function effectively in professional setting.
It is healthy for learners to develop research skills at undergraduate level, rather than at master’s level. In my view, academic research at master’s level can be described as an added value. At times, due to a couple of reasons, not all graduates have a chance to undertake postgraduate studies. The policy must be intended to embrace the Government’s agenda on quality education as the major instrument to turn things around. Good research skills is one of the outcomes of quality education. Who wouldn’t be proud of it?
And quality education is one of the basic needs for human development and to escape from poverty it is necessary for national development and a prosperous society. To achieve this, the undertaking has to ensure that at University level students should be empowered to do much more than they would otherwise do. Changing behaviour patterns and mindset of people requires robust policies. University students must be taught to be the catalyst of societal impact. No comfort zone, or picnic, at University. Students must be prepared that the future is a bloody journey. A journey that is full of twists and turns. A journey that requires familiarity with what it costs. A journey that requires saying no to impossibility. Quality education requires those systems, procedures, processes and actions intended to lead to its achievement.