Universities used to be centres of excellence not numbers

The state of education in Rwanda or the East African region as a whole seems to have embraced the notion of quantity at the expense of quality.
Allan Brian Ssenyonga
Allan Brian Ssenyonga

The state of education in Rwanda or the East African region as a whole seems to have embraced the notion of quantity at the expense of quality. The emergence of universal primary education and then universal secondary education only seems to have worsened an already worrying situation.

Some few years back, President Kagame, while meeting students at the National University of Rwanda, said that employers were complaining about the quality of graduates from universities here. According to them, graduates, well armed with their certificates in those khaki envelopes often turn out unable to do small things like writing a decent job application letter!

In my world the term often used to describe this is “Diploma disease.” This refers to the clamour for academic qualifications with very little effort to acquire visible skills, knowledge or attitudes equivalent to what the certificates say.

One East African columnist recently hinted that Kampala International University (KIU) had mastered the art of providing what he called Universal University education. This was in response to the news that the Kenyan Council for Higher Education did not recognise degrees from KIU.

I am not rubbishing the qualifications handed out by KIU but to echo the words of Prof. Mahmood Mamdani, who wrote a book, (Scholars in the Market place. The Dilemmas of Neo-Liberal Reform at Makerere University 1989-2005), about how the famous Makerere University was going through a similar dilemma.

In this era of mass education, the struggle to stand out has moved to higher institutions of learning. It is no longer worthy for one to have completed primary or secondary school and stopped there. One has to make it to the university as well if they are to stand a chance at future employment.

The challenge, however, trying to offer university education to as many people as possible. Universities in this region have resorted to churning out thousands and thousands of useless graduates.

The universities are more concerned about numbers as this means more money goes to their bank accounts. In all this, the administrators of universities have forgotten the basic bit of a university being a centre of excellence. A place where minds are fined tuned and research is done.

Today most of the universities we have are simply places where almost anyone who sat for A level, scored some marks and can afford to pay the tuition fees will find a place. Some universities even offer bridge courses for those who do not have the necessary academic requirements to pursue a degree.

In other words, they are willing to bend backwards to let in even those who were not supposed to be there in the first place. And because they do not want to appear to be failing students, many of those admitted will make it to the graduation day and just pose for photos with friends and relatives.

What we forget is that most of these graduates have simply spent three or four years photocoping notes and sitting simple exams that have been set almost the same way each year. Students revise these same past papers and pass with flying colours.

The lecturers have no time to set difficult or elaborate exams because they will not have the time to mark them. You know they have other jobs and consultancy to do on top of the university work.

At the end of the day we have students who have gained very little besides age walking around with impressive certificates. Once employed, these graduates can barely accomplish most basic tasks, thus frustrating the employers who thought they had snapped sharp university brains.

I know universities need the money, so we cannot expect them to reduce their numbers. However, employers can find a way around this by offering internships so that at least the ‘graduates’ can learn some more outside the business of photocopying notes.


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