All is set for the University of Rwanda to become operational when the 2013/14 academic year starts next week, but the institution will be given a two-year transition window to fully centralise the administration of the seven public universities. The Minister for Education, Dr Vincent Biruta, last week, spoke to The New Times’ Felly Kimenyi on the expectations from the merger, the recruitment drive of the new institution’s senior management and other issues affecting the education sector. Below are the excerpts;-
How far are the preparations for the establishment of the University of Rwanda?
The process of establishing the University of Rwanda is well advanced with the Bill establishing it having been already adopted by parliament and it will be gazetted very soon, our plan is to start the university with the new academic year, which commences on September 2.
The first step in terms of mechanisms that government put in place is the taskforce on the One University project which was established in November 2012 and has been working on details, including the harmonisation of programmes, the location of the constituent colleges, financial issues between the central administration and the colleges and all these will allow the new institution to begin smoothly.
However, to ensure smooth transition, we have provided a transitional period of two years and this period will allow the new institution to efficiently transition from the existing seven public higher learning institutions. So, things will be done progressively over two years and after this, I believe everything will be in place.
I think we are on track, we have been able to advertise the positions of the senior management team, we have pre-selected some candidates who will be forwarded to cabinet for approval and are also proposing the members of the board of governors.
Our target is to have in place the vice chancellor, deputy vice chancellors and the board of governors by the time the university begins.
When you talk of transition period, what will be the status quo during this time; does this mean that the colleges will remain autonomous for those two years?
About autonomy, even after the transition period, colleges will have some degree of autonomy, at the college level and that is how the concept is designed. The kind of transition I am talking about here is, there are academic and administrative staff in these higher learning institutions; once the law establishing the University of Rwanda has been gazetted, not all these people are going to be stopped from operating or left out. We need to look at the new structure and look at the existing staff to be able to say that these are going to be placed here and there.
The new administration will, of course, immediately start working under the established framework but not overnight. For instance, we have some areas where we shall need to recruit staff and also to work on some orders from the Prime Minister to enable the implementation of the new law. So all these will take some time and that is why we provided for the transition period.
Are there any changes expected for the current students?
Efforts are being made to minimise disruption to the learning of current students. Students enrolled in public higher learning institutions prior to the 2013/14 academic year will continue their studies on the programmes they enrolled in at the same campus.
Any changes to programmes will only be applied to new students enrolling from 2013/14 and the first University of Rwanda degrees will be awarded to students who will be registered under the new system.
So when is the taskforce expected to complete its work?
The taskforce is expected to be dissolved soon as the law establishing the University of Rwanda is gazetted and as soon as we have in place the new senior management team but, so far, we have harmonised the programmes at least for the first years for all the colleges.
We have also harmonised academic policies and regulations so that effective the new academic year, all these institutions will be under the same rules.
What changes in terms of academic quality do you envisage following the merger?
By merging the existing public higher learning institutions, we aim at raising the standards. If I may refer to the Webometrics ranking of universities in the world which were published recently, you know, for example, the National University of Rwanda declined sharply in the ranking.
One of the reasons we are implementing this initiative is to bring together and maximise the resources in our public higher learning institutions. When you look at, say, the number of PhD holders in each of these institutions, they are very few, but when you bring them all under one institution, it becomes quite a big number.
When you look at the publications of each institution they are very few, not impressive, but imagine publications made at NUR, SFB, KIST or KIE, among others, being under one institution, we want to elevate the standards and have an institution that is well-known in terms of academic performance. Basically, our vision is to have a world class university.
This will definitely elevate our ranking by Webometrics and other global ranking agencies, but probably the most important factor is that we shall be able to rationalise the existing resources, under the current system, we have duplication of programmes at various public institutions, where it is not possible to share the teaching staff and facilities like the laboratories.
But under the University of Rwanda, things will be streamlined in such a way that it is made clear a particular programme is managed at a particular site under a particular college and if we need to extend the programme to another collage, it will be done in an organised way; not each institution sitting and deciding which programmes to have, but rather a decision will be made from a wider perspective.
There is an issue of bureaucracy, where you have seven institutions with colleges scattered all over the country; don’t you think this will impede service delivery?
That is a matter of management; if you provide for delegation of power to college and school level, there will be a way to deal with any kind of bureaucracy.
But look at it this way; today we are dealing with seven boards of directors, seven rectors, 14 vice rectors and so forth. This creates bureaucracy in itself. But to remove any bottlenecks, delegation of powers has been provided for in the law.
Tell us about the organisational structure of the University of Rwanda.
We have the University of Rwanda under which we have the six constituent colleges; the College of Medicine and Health Sciences, the College of Agriculture and Veterinary Sciences, the College of Arts and Social Sciences, the College of Education, the College of Business and Economics, and the College of Science and Technology.
Under each college, there will be schools, for example, under the College of Medicine and Health Sciences, there will be the school of medicine and the school of health sciences, and under the schools, definitely there will be departments as is the case in the current system.
We have organised these colleges around programmes, rather than geographical locations because if you organise them according to programmes, it makes it easier to share resources.
The existing campuses will have managers. For instance, in the existing Umutara Polytechnic, which will be part of the college of agriculture and veterinary sciences, maybe the school of veterinary medicine will be based there, but then there will be other sections will be constituents of the college of say business and economics, that is the way the system will work.
Otherwise, the headquarters of the University of Rwanda will be temporarily at the School of Finance and Banking in Kigali, while the main campus will be the National University of Rwanda, because of the numerical edge (in terms of students) it has over the others.
Are there other countries where this ‘One University’ model has been implemented?
There are various places where this system has worked and yielded better results. In the US, for example, there are various universities that operate the same system with colleges and schools spread across the country, but all under the same administration.
There are concerns about the quality of education, especially in our universities. What does the University of Rwanda bring in this regard?
What I have to say is that the quality of education or rather the quality of the graduates we put on the labour market is something that will always be of concern to us. I do not envisage a time when we will say, this is something we are done being concerned about.
Education is dynamic and we have to keep up with the trend. When we talk about education, we are mainly looking at three components of concern; the knowledge, the skills and the attitude.
When you impart knowledge without looking at skills, the quality is not there and when you give skills but without the right attitude, still the quality of education is compromised. I agree with you that we need to progressively improve on our quality and we need to benchmark our standards to international standards, we need to adapt our education to the needs of our country and so forth.
I cannot say the quality is not there but we have to always maintain the checks and balances to remain relevant and the One University policy is one of the measures that will help us in this regard.
You are in the process of selecting the senior management team, have you zeroed in on some kind of target that you will give them to work toward in a specified period of time?
They will be given targets; we shall have a strategic plan that will give us the roadmap to monitor them and shall have some kind of performance contracts as we do in other public institutions but we need the senior management in place first before going into these details.
Another thing I can tell you is that the process of recruitment of the senior managers has been so open and it was international; we have had a very good number of applications and those we have preselected I am confident, are good, with the experience and knowledge to drive this institution to the desired standards.
On the issue of publication by the academic staff, it is something that is said cost our institutions dearly in international ranking, what is your take?
Yes, it is indeed true that the number of publications per institution and where you publish is always a major determinant. When you look at the numbers and consider every institution on its own, it is very difficult to have a good ranking. But if you bring them together, like we are trying to do, the number will go up and I am confident and so is the ranking.
Of course, there is much more that needs to be done besides increasing the numbers through the merger. I would be wrong to say that the issue of publications in our institutions is only limited because of the big number of small higher learning institutions that we have, there is also an issue of the number of publications per academic staff per year.
We shall need to put in place some kind of performance contracts for our academic staff and to evaluate them along these targets.
An academic I spoke to said there is lack of funding for researchers...
There is an issue of funding, it is true on the side of government, but then they also need to get into the habit of writing proposals and apply for grants. There are many organisations that have this kind of grants, specifically to fund research for academicians but you find many not bothering to make these proposals.
But, of course, we need to put in more money as government to facilitate research and we are working on it. This is actually one of the reasons behind the recent reforms in the student loan scheme, to ensure some money we have been putting in that scheme goes to other components of higher education like infrastructure development and research.
So bottom line, there is work cut out for us on both sides.
With the new academic year, further changes are expected, including the revision of student bursaries, how are you ready to deal with problems that are likely to arise, especially with those students who will be unable to pay?
We are currently monitoring the ongoing registration process and so far I see no problem. In some institutions, registration is at 70 per cent with the process expected to continue up to September 15 so I think there will not be serious issues, especially since registration is made with the payment of the first installment of the fees.
Definitely, the new system will have an impact and that is why we are continuously monitoring the process so that we can be able to address the problems that may arise, as we work on a long-term solution like a study we are working on with BRD (Rwanda Development Bank) through which we are devising means of being able to sponsor university students through university without considering the Ubudehe (income level) categories.
We are hoping to have concluded this study by the end of the year.
Any message you would wish to put across?
I have been reading newspapers people saying that the concept of University of Rwanda has not been well communicated to stakeholders but what I can say is that I have personally been to all the institutions to be affected and I have spoken with both the staff and the students. The process has been well explained to all.
And the taskforce I referred to at the beginning of the interview is mainly composed of heads of the existing higher learning institutions, meaning, they are not only informed, but they are actually driving the process.
Communication has also been made to the students. I actually met student representatives before touring the institutions, and we shall continue to engage them at different forums.
Of course, some people are anxious and it is normal whenever there is an anticipated restructuring. You find some concerned about their jobs or about positions but I think it is not fair to say that information was not shared with the right people.