Do you have an idea for The New Times to cover? Submit it here!

Covid-19 has been a great learning experience – Prof. Phillip Cotton

The outgoing Vice-Chancellor of University of Rwanda, Prof Phillip Cotton, during the interview in Kigali on October 14. Sam Ngendahimana

The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Rwanda, Prof Phillip Cotton on Monday, October 19, concludes his five-year term at the helm of the country’s biggest higher learning institution. Before this, he headed the College of Medicine and Health Sciences. The New Times’ Felly Kimenyi had an exclusive interview with him, in which he talked about his journey at the university, research, lessons from Covid-19 and his life after the university.



How is the University of Rwanda coping in terms of adjusting to the New Normal created by Covid-19 and how far is the process to reopen if there is such a plan?


The University is ready to reopen; along with Rwanda Polytechnic, the University of Rwanda has announced an opening date of October 19.


And, you know, the reopening has to be seen in the context of a national strategy to mitigate the effects of Covid-19, so we are welcoming students back in phases. We're going to start with students in years three, four, and five.

And of course, at the University of Rwanda, we have degrees that last three years, four years, five years, and even longer. And we want to get those students back into lead. Many of them are finishing up their journey at university.

And we want to prepare the pipeline of professionals into the job market that has been disrupted globally by Covid-19. And so we're going to start with those students who are towards the end of their undergraduate academic journeys.

Once we've got those students back on track, they will probably leave the campuses, and we will then start to bring the first and second-year students back.

The students have to be ready for a real acceleration of their studies because there's a lot of ground to cover. And we have to make sure that that ground is covered in the most effective way while being true to the pursuits of education.

With students who have been out of school for nearly a year, are you still confident you will be sending finished products to the job market?

Well, I think you've got two questions in one there. Will we graduate finished products? And will we be sending them to the job market? And you're right because globally, job markets have been hugely affected.

You know, many, many people have lost their jobs. Industries across board have slowed down. People have been laid off, they've been furloughed. Their contracts have not been renewed. And so it's a major issue globally.

And it doesn't just affect us, of course. But there are pipelines of professionals that we need to maintain, such as teachers, and medical professionals. And there's also the recovery phase. For many countries, there will be a need for people with skills in engineering and architecture and such like.

But it's going to be a real balancing act, getting the right numbers of people into the right jobs and the right numbers of people with the right skills set into the right jobs.

So you're not concerned about the quality of these products?

I’m completely and totally obsessed with the quality of people. That's what I spent my time doing at UR. But the interpretation of quality depends on where you are, and where you're standing.

So, quality in education means something different to a parent or a sponsor, to a learner, to the workplace, to a potential employer, to potential partner in business, to potential partner in innovation, entrepreneurship, to institutions, to the benchmarking organizations, to the external examiners.

So we have to get a coherent version of quality for higher education. And one of the things that we've been working on very hard is to bring real integrity to the issues of learning, teaching and assessment.

And so assessment has to be true, credible, valid and reliable. It has to test the right things at the right times in the students' journey. It has to be validated by an external examiner, where possible.

What lessons do you think you are going to be left with by this pandemic?

I think, the same lessons as most other sectors, which is how we create resilience within system. You know, how well have we prepared and how do we prepare ourselves for similar episodes of disruption in the future.

And of course, our response has been, like many other people, to make sure that we come out of this period with a better version of the university and a better version of ourselves.

And so we have moved to becoming online with online resources, and have an online learning platform, and our challenge really, is not to return to the old ways of doing things, but to keep moving forward in new, exciting and energizing ways of learning for students, and new and exciting and energizing ways of teaching and nurturing and facilitating for faculty.

What is the update on the merger of public universities to create the University of Rwanda that started seven years ago?

Yes, we've merged the institutions, as you say and our biggest challenge from day one was always to re-articulate ourselves and to regenerate our story as one university.

But I don't think we always got it right. I don't think the structures that we created in our various campuses necessarily helped us in that endeavor. And yet, we were in control of setting up the structures.

I think the biggest issue, of course, with many of these things is it doesn't matter how much strategy and planning you've got, it's really about changing the culture. And so we had quite different and distinct institutions that we were merging.

You know, and we had very well established, comprehensive, approach and offerings. And they're very well established universities, and much newer institutions. And there are many issues about merging the programmes, even merging the faculty and dealing with academic ranks.

But you know, if you merge seven institutions, then you've got seven different organisations with their own hierarchy, their own cultures of doing things. And when you bring that all together, you cause a huge amount of disruption.

So what academic and administrative staff have done over the last seven and a half years, is to learn a lot about merging and a lot about creating a new culture. I think there are still there will always be people who live in the past, there will always be people who resist for one reason or another, whether it's deeply held personal convictions or otherwise.

But I think the direction now is very clear.

Are there things that you think could have been done differently in the implementation of the merger that created UR?

Almost everything could have been done differently; you know, and probably could have been done in 10 different ways. Every aspect, you know; I worked in the College of Medicine and Health Sciences for the first two years of the university. And so we had already started doing a lot of things because they have been planned and hoped for.

But even as you're doing things, you're thinking, why are we doing it this way? It could be done differently, it could have been done much more efficiently etc…Effectively so many, many things, I think will reflect on that for a long time…you would hear staff not being consulted or prepared for the merger, even in the year leading up to the merger.

But, yeah, I'm sure we can find many, many ways to do things differently, and perhaps even better.

One of the reasons I believe was behind the merger was to have a better way of managing faculty staff and have a coherent way of developing their capacities; how far have you gone in this regard?

There is no doubt that we've increased the number of PhD holders in the university, we've increased the number of PhD opportunities within the university as well as PhD opportunities through partners outside the university.

But in building capacity, we want to build capacity through people getting awarded PhDs, but we also want to build our own capacity in running PhD programmes. And we can give you the data to demonstrate that.

However, one of the things that's become very apparent to us is, is the way in which we recruit academic staff, the way in which academic staff get effectively what's known as tenure in other universities.

And so we almost always recruit from the bottom up, the best graduates come in as tutorial assistance and once they get a master's degree, they become assistant lecturers. And once they get their PhDs, they become lecturers. And so the journey is long and arduous.

But there are many people coming back into the country with master's degrees, and doctoral degrees, who we need to bring into the university to build the university, but we don't have a lot of experience in recruiting people into middle grade or senior posts, although, in the last year, we've probably started to change the way in which we do that attracting people that are fairly senior levels, into the university from outside.

And so we've been working very hard to make sure that capacity development around doctoral education doesn't simply mean the award of certificates, but is followed up with post-doctoral publications, and also followed up with instruction around pedagogy and teaching and learning.

Much has been said about faculty members in Rwanda not doing enough research that provides answers to local challenges…

Yeah, I think it's a major problem. But I think the University of Rwanda is producing a lot of research, we produce almost half of the research output of this country that is captured in what we call ISI (International Scientific Journals), that is internationally known to index journals.

But there are several problems. And you allude to those problems. And it goes back to PhD study as well, and that people have historically had a rather scattergun approach, rather than a strategic one.

So they would seek out a scholarship for a master's degree or a PhD, wherever they can get it. And it may not be in line with the strategic direction of the university, the institution that they belong to the country.

But you know, when somebody comes to you and says, you know, I've worked really hard, I've got a PhD scholarship to go to such and such a place, I've been trying for five or six years to get one, then, and you want to say, well, actually, that the area that you want to do your doctorate?

It's actually quite difficult to confront somebody in those terms, but it also means that the university probably hasn't been helping people sufficiently. And there are many opportunities that come our way, and we cascade them down through the university.

But we don't identify potential scholarship applicants, and then we don't shepherd them through the process when the same has happened with research and research funding fairly over known over a number of years, that people again have had a rather scattergun approach to it.

Actually, there's an awful lot of funding available out there. And we need to work to get that funding, and then work with partners the very best way of being successful in attracting that funding.

But we need the research to address questions and problems that face the country or the region. And one of our big issues has been that research has become a bit of extractive industry. So people will come in mine data. And we're an education institution. And we're very aware of the needs of learners, to get requests for people to come and data mine.

But again, the university has to start to articulate its own research themes, and then through resource mobilization and research and enterprise teams begin to identify funding pools and funding bodies who will help us take forward that research.

But you know, you can keep publishing, you can publish as much as you'd like, but it's the quality of the publication that really matters. And so while we've been working to build up our own journals in the country, we've also managed to get those journals indexed in what we call Africa Journals Online (AJO), which means that those papers get picked up by other readers.

And when those papers are picked up and followed up by other people referenced by other scholars and researchers around the world, we get an index called a Citation Index, a number of times that other people cite our work.

And most of the times people cite the work of other researchers, it's because they want to build on that research work. And so the Citation Index for the University of Rwanda, which is high in East Africa, is a good mark of quality.

And we've wanted people to move away from just publishing for the sake of publishing, and publishing in anything, and anywhere to publishing, again, strategically in journals. And so when you look at some of the journals, and some of the papers that have attracted the most citations, you will find Rwandan authors.

One of the things we're not very good at, and it's actually telling the world about our publications. So over the last couple of years, we've created a publication database. You can find it on the website.

The number of publications in internationally-indexed journals since 2014, when we started the university, we had 111 and this last year, we had 255.

But what we need to do is compare that number with the total number of faculty. So how many papers is each faculty member producing a year? Or how many years does it take for one person to produce a paper?

Or how many people does it take to produce one paper, the College of Medicine and Health Sciences has the highest rate of publication, but some of the other colleges have a much lower rate of publication.

So for some colleges, it might be that every two academic staff produce one high-quality paper a year, or one member of staff takes two years to produce a high-quality output in terms of publication. And for other colleges, it may be that it takes one person five years. And of course, that's not good enough.

Who in your view has been the best partner in terms of funding these kinds of research projects?

I think, you know, we would immediately jump to the Swedish government. They're a partner that has stayed with us the longest, and probably contributed more to the publication output, the profile of publications, the visibility of the university, and, and number of PhDs, there is one, there is one problem that we haven't quite solved.

And that is through, hopefully, we're going to solve it through what I propose as a forum for institutional change within the university because we have many partners.

And we learn many lessons. We have many experiences people go and they learn in other countries in other universities. We have exchange visits. And people have different experiences and they encounter new ways of doing things.

But we don't actually collate and curate all of that experience, and use it to drive forward institutional change. And so that's something that we're going to focus a lot more on in the future. But there are other I mean, there are other Swedish government-sponsored projects such as Carta, which is a consortium of universities that produce doctoral training.

How about translating that research output into an avenue of self-financing of the university? A couple of years back, Parliament implored UR to expand its own revenue streams to supplement what you get from the government.  How far have you gone with that?

I think we have to look at what happens in other countries, we have to look at best practice in other places. We're also a relatively young institution. And so we don't have the endowments that other universities have.

Remember, there are some universities in the world that have a greater endowment in the one institution than their competitor universities put together. We don't have an endowment, and it's something that my fellow vice-chancellors in the African continent have been discussing for some time; which is to create a large fund that would become an endowment for a number of research, active universities.

And we've been advocating for that. But there are very few universities in the world that don't rely on tuition fee income, we rely very heavily on tuition fee income, it happens that most of our tuition fee income comes in the form of government scholarships and government bursaries for students.

And so in that sense, we are completely dependent on the government. But we need to understand costs a lot better in the university. And one of the projects that we've been doing in the university is to create the notion of bit mini-budget entities or work towards creating that.

So even the smallest academic units and the departments in the university must have a greater understanding of cost. Money that they spend has to be matched by money that they generate, whether that's through research funding, or tuition fee income while being very careful about the numbers of students in our classrooms, and on our campuses.

But there are many opportunities through innovation, entrepreneurship, remember that we have a very robust intellectual property policy within the university and a process. But in order to realize the returns from intellectual property, you're looking at 10-20 years down the line. And there are some production units in the university that could do a lot better.

And there are some resources and facilities that we buy into the university that we could actually produce ourselves. And so there is a lot of work that's been done through a new unit called resource mobilization.

And through the finance portfolio within the university and the finance Directorate, we're also looking at being much more cost-effective and efficient with the money that we spend. We spend a lot of money on missions on people traveling, we spend a lot of money on people going for retreats. We spend a lot of money on things that we perhaps don't need to spend money on.

We spend a lot of money on utilities, yet we have learned during Covid-19 that life goes on without spending a lot of money on mission and a lot of money on utilities.

As an academic who has worked in Rwanda for almost eight years, what is your personal assessment of the future of education in Rwanda, generally?

My personal assessment is that it will become a preferred place for students and for academics. When you look at where we've come from, and what we've achieved, and if we keep on that trajectory, we will become the preferred place for students and faculty in the region.

I think one of the exciting things about working in Rwanda is that we're never quite satisfied, in a sense with what we've achieved, we need to keep pushing ourselves to achieve more. I think we haven't quite understood in many countries, what education contributes to the economy, both as a service, but also as a producer.

And there's a lot more work to be done in that regard. I think, you know, clearly at other levels of education, there are issues around transition of students and the numbers, transitioning, there are some issues that face us that also are reflected globally, which is the number of girls coming to higher education and into some of our science and technology subjects.

Last year, for the first time, we had half of all of the intake into medicine being girls. And, and that is something that we need to reflect on. And we know that in part it was because one of the selection steps into medicine is through an interview. And so we need to look at the modalities of selection of students.

But I think the quality of education in Rwanda is on the right trajectory. We have to make sure that you know learners around the world, it doesn't matter which country you go to learners one-two diploma at the end of the day.

Learners want to know what they need to do to get that diploma. And sometimes, young people in all countries around the world want to do the minimum just to get the diploma. We need to change the way in which people learn.

So we need to transition from universities being Higher Teaching Institutions to truly becoming Higher Learning Institutions, where learning takes place where there are diagnostic facilities for the ways in which people learn, and that there are many opportunities for people to learn from many different resources.

But we also have to get the assessment right. Are we assessing skills? Are we assessing knowledge? Are we assessing soft skills? And what does the assessment of those various domains lead to in terms of the progression and the development of young people?

You know that the cost of education is a challenge in many parts of the world with people graduating with debt, in many, many countries, we want to be able to deliver quality education, that makes a difference to the lives of young people that transforms the lives of young people, because only transformed people will go on and transform the country.

We want to be able to do that at a cost that makes sense to the lives of people here. And I think we have those considerations in mind. And those values that underpin what we do. I don't believe that the quality of some of our graduates such as in law and medicine is any different from the quality of graduates from universities and institutions in the Global North.

And we just need to keep focusing on the right things, and the best things and, and the right things in the best things, the young people of this country and the surplus of other people in this country.

Why do you think these people are being attracted to Rwanda?

Because Rwanda is a safe, good place to live, and a good place to study. So there are so many other contextual reasons why people are attracted to come to Rwanda. Not only because of the university but because of life in Rwanda.

You know, and I think we have to get the fee structure, right. People do want to study in English, people do want to study to be able to study subjects and topics that will allow them to go on and develop their careers in their professional lives. And the University of Rwanda is, is ranked fairly highly in East Africa. In terms of Citation Index, we're number two. And there's a lot of universities in East Africa.

We have to be very careful about the rankings that we chase. But the recent world rankings for Africa are positive for us. And I think that a university that has students and faculty from a wide range of places is a university that has a very positive culture, and a very positive learning environment.

I am told that there is no graduation ceremony this year due to Covid-19. How is this going to affect future similar events?

Graduation is a ceremony, and it's an important ceremony and, you know, there is dignity that comes with that ceremony. And people are conferred their degrees during that ceremony.

And for the University of Rwanda, people graduate in November, and we've held that graduation ceremony in Huye in the last couple of years. And they get a degree certificate that says that you were awarded this degree or this Diploma in November of whatever year in Huye, at a congregation.

And, you know, we know that students sometimes finished their time at university well before November, and they want their degree certificates and their transcripts to progress on to the next stage, whether it's applying for a master's degree, or for work.

And so we've now agreed with the university academic senate and the Board of Governors and the Chancellor, that people's degrees certificates will reflect a date which immediately follows the conclusion of their studies.

The graduation is still an important ceremony. And so the Chancellor still effectively confers the degrees. But it means that students in their CVs and for their future careers will have a dated degree certificate that more closely reflects when they finished their period of study.

But we're planning virtual graduation, which is hugely exciting. And we've been watching very closely what other universities have been doing. Some universities have completed their graduation ceremonies virtually and online in 25 minutes, and others have taken rather longer.

Our graduation ceremonies cost us a lot of money. They bring great visibility to the university. But there are still people who cannot attend graduation for one reason or another. So we believe that virtual graduation with an official photograph of the student in their gown and hood, holding a scroll will be good enough.

Subscribe to The New Times E-Paper

For news tips and story ideas please WhatsApp +250 788 310 999    


Follow The New Times on Google News