On August 23, 2009 I hitched a ride with President Kagame’s entourage as he visited the National University of Rwanda at Butare.
While there, he gave two wide-ranging speeches. In the first one which was rather tame and good humoured and in which he addressed himself mainly to the students, he told them, among other things, of their importance in Rwanda’s struggle for self-advancement.
He called on them to strive to be the best they can be, and not to aspire to mediocrity.
His emphasis on ambition and the pursuit of ever-higher goals; his disdain for mediocrity and the arrogance of those who want to dictate to Africans, including telling them “how to take a shower” are by now well-known to those who listen keenly to his speeches. So one can say that on the evening he addressed the university community, he was really in his element.
Of central concern to him was the quality of students coming out of Rwanda’s premier institution of higher learning, an issue he chose not to dwell on in his first speech.
He ended with an invitation to students to ask questions so as to engage in discussion with him.
Before I get on to the students, it is fitting to point out that in his welcoming speech, the Rector, Professor Silas Lwakabamba, arguably one of the finest heads of universities in the region, spoke about, among other things, the urgent need for the government to consider raising the salaries of his staff.
This, he pleaded, would help stem the rising tide of departures by academics seeking the proverbial greener pastures.
Evidently dissatisfied about reports that the university has been putting poor-quality products on the job market, the President quickly responded: “no good pay for no good work”.
But allow me not to jump the gun as it were, for the theme of quality was to be a key element in his second speech.
I must say that, with very few exceptions, the quality of questions the students put to the President and the sorts of issues they raised with him, some incoherent, totally underwhelmed me.
Never have I encountered a more boring and uninspiring group of university students.
And I have been around quite a bit. I would not be surprised if many in the audience went to sleep. I couldn’t stop yawning.
Interestingly, probably in order to avoid murdering “the queen’s language” in front of a leading champion of making English widely spoken in Rwanda, many chose to speak in Kinyarwanda.
With my more than slightly hopeless grasp of the language, I had to depend on my chaperon to fill in the many gaps.
In keeping with his reputation as a no-nonsense disciplinarian, the President gave short thrift to one rather plucky young man who decided to walk to the microphone with his hands deep in his trousers.
In polite society, strutting about like this before your elders is a sign of very bad manners. And so as a good parent, the President told the chap literally to shut up and get lost.
I can imagine him wishing the ground would open up and swallow him as he walked off.
The opportunity for students to ask questions must have given the President a chance to listen to the pre-occupations of some of Rwanda’s ‘best and brightest’ young minds.
Quite a spectacle it was, as from time to time he was forced to remind them that they were supposed to ask questions, not make speeches.
Now one would expect a well-trained person to know the difference between a speech and a question, never mind that guha ijambo (making a speech) is a great Rwanda tradition.
At the end of the rather unsatisfactory ‘question and answer session’, the President got up to make his second speech.
Apparently, both here and outside Rwanda, he has been told of the poor quality of the students coming out of local universities, and he has not liked it one bit.
And so judging from the thrust of his second offering, one of the reasons he was visiting was to give the Butare crowd their “quatre verités”.
It was time to stop being complacent and glossing over a bad situation, he said. As far as he was concerned, he added, the responsibility for this state of affairs lay less with the students and more with their teachers, some of whom are soaked in alcohol “25 hours a day”.
The students loved this one and responded with loud applause.
To cut the long story short, he challenged the university authorities, in the same way he has urged school administrators at all levels, to uplift educational standards in the country, if Rwanda was to achieve its development objectives.
It would have been remiss if the President had focused on the failings of tertiary institutions without reference to shortcomings at lower levels.
Earlier in the day he had visited a girls’ secondary school, and there, too, the issue of quality had not escaped his attention.
There should be no debate about the need for all people concerned about education to take the President’s well-meaning remarks as an invitation to debate the issue of what to do about the standards of teaching in the country, and the quality of graduates leaving its tertiary institutions.
And like him, those whose criticism has hitherto been directed solely at universities should broaden their search for solutions.
Their collective gazes should widen to included lower levels of the education system.
As an academic with some experience of teaching in different contexts, I know that the quality of university graduates bears the finger prints of their primary and secondary school teachers.
The shaping of good university graduates starts at primary school and, for some cases, even lower down, and is refined at secondary school.
A good secondary school product will leave university with the skills and knowledge to face up to whatever challenges the wider world throws at them.
A bad secondary school product on the other hand, will leave university having only marginally improved. It is a bit like value-addition to primary products. This may not be the best of examples, but no amount of value addition will make a rotten tomato taste good.
And so, as the saying goes, for universities, and here I do not seek to defend incompetent and inattentive academics, it is ‘rubbish in, rubbish out’.
A university lecturer can do very little to improve the quality of a student who turns up in his or her class without having been taught how to write clearly or think critically while at primary and secondary school.
Students who, while at lower levels of the education system or even at home, have been taught to fear rather than respect their teachers or seniors, cannot easily be taught to un-learn old habits developed over many years.
I would argue that inability by graduates to write legibly and speak coherently, are key indicators of how far standards at lower levels have fallen, rather than of sloppy teaching by university academics.
Imagine for example, a chemistry or physics lecturer teaching large classes of this type of students. What can they possibly do to bring them to up to speed? It is an impossible task.
The search for solutions should therefore start with devising strategies to ensure that universities receive students who are already wired up for turning into competent professionals.
This will necessarily entail correcting defects at lower levels of the education food chain. Fortunately Rwanda is not the only country in the region or in the world that has to grapple with how to raise the quality of products from its academic institutions.
I do not say this in order to make Rwandans feel smug about not being the only producers of half-baked graduates. Rather, my intention is to suggest that it offers an opportunity to look at what others are doing or have done.
South Africa which after the collapse of Apartheid had to deal with huge problems stemming from the hopelessly inadequate Bantu education system which had been forced onto black people might be one place to look.
In the meantime the onus is on NUR and sister institutions to think creatively about how to respond to the President’s challenge, and on Rwandan society generally to broaden the debate in a collective search for answers to the clearly complex questions seemingly persistent poor standards raise.
The writer is a Senior Research Fellow at the Makerere Institute of Social Research, Makerere University, and a student of Rwanda’s history and politics.
He can be reached via email@example.com