Wanted: The University of Rwanda's worst enemy

Higher education in Rwanda has undergone major changes over the past five years. The most significant change saw the transformation of six independent public universities into colleges under the umbrella of the University of Rwanda (UR).

Higher education in Rwanda has undergone major changes over the past five years. The most significant change saw the transformation of six independent public universities into colleges under the umbrella of the University of Rwanda (UR). The reform, we were told, sought to bring about a lean institution that would lead to better management of resources and end the duplication of duties. All this was meant to bring about a more efficient institution with the ability to respond to the demands of higher education.

Moreover, these reforms are meant to make the university bigger and better. Its new programmes are meant to also help bring it closer to its strategic vision of attaining recognition as a major research university over the next ten years.

Its leadership has said repeatedly that for this grand vision to become a reality, a higher calibre faculty, conceived as persons with doctorate degrees, is needed. Indeed, a plan that will see a gradual increment of faculty members with doctorate degrees increase from the current 20 per cent to around 60 per cent by 2024 is already being implemented. The story, however, does not end there.

This same university that claims to need faculty with doctorate degrees has a very specific way of treating those who come knocking on its doors. This is a story of the experiences of two young men and a distinguished scholar at the hands of our university.

A young man, who had never left Rwanda in his entire life benefits from a government programme, earns a scholarship to study in an American University. After some bouts with the English language, he recovers and finishes on top of his entire graduating class.

Impressed by his potential, a top-tier American university comparable to the likes of Ivy-League Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, grabs him and offers him a scholarship to undertake doctoral studies direct after his first degree.

Here, too, the young man excels. He gains the confidence of the faculty in his academic department and is assigned a position as a Teaching Assistant as usually happens to students who excel.

As he turned 30, his doctorate degree – in the natural sciences – was already in hand. The offers from pharmaceutical companies, among them, Pfizer, started to pour in. However, the experience he had gained as a Teaching Assistant had convinced him that professorship was his calling.

Also, he wanted to return home to ‘make a contribution’ to his country, to give back to the society that had given him so much. He sent an email to a top university official in Rwanda. No response. He sent a second one. More silence.

The silent treatment prompted him to try American universities. The first university he wrote to replied immediately, with an invitation to visit, all expenses paid. After a second visit, he was offered a position as Assistant Professor on tenure track, which is the normal entry level position for holders of doctorate degrees in America.

The other young man, unlike the first one, had studied the social sciences. The rest of his story is similar. He also earned his degree only months prior to turning 31, and decided to return home. In America he had attended a well known university and had been a Teaching Assistant. He, too, realised that the professoriate was his true calling. 

After he returned to Rwanda, he approached university officials about potential employment opportunities. In response, the officials pointed out that the university was undergoing an audit that had led to hiring being suspended temporarily.

Undaunted, the young man visits the academic department that is most aligned with his area of study. There he finds students waiting for a foreign professor who was expected to fly in, offer the course, and return. However, the students point out that they had spent weeks waiting for this particular professor and, as a result, were unsure that he would eventually come.

In an effort to save the day, the young man approaches the administration and offers to teach the course free of charge, given the hiring freeze. To his surprise, the response was in the negative. Indeed, and to cut the long story short, he was never hired. Eventually, he gave up on the university altogether.

Finally, the distinguished scholar. During an informal chat with a high-ranking university official, the Professor expresses interest in teaching at the university. To this, a seemingly excited official requests the Professor to send him an email that would formalise their chat. The email is sent. No response.

They again ran into each other at a public function. Conversation takes them back to the chat about teaching and to the email that was sent. Rather sheepishly, the official acknowledges having seen the email before audaciously making another request, “Could you send me another one?”

Therefore, the story that is being repeated by university officials that there are few Rwandans with doctoral degrees is part mythology. If it were a human being, what the university should have done is to look in a mirror and reflect on the image in it. That image would be its worst enemy. However, since UR is not a human being, perhaps its leadership should reflect on this and decide what it is they are really trying to do and how best to do it.

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