Pass English or repeat: How best can universities deal with proficiency tests?

Recently, the University of Rwanda College of Science and Technology blocked 156 students from proceeding to the next level for one reason: they failed an English exam despite passing other course units.
Students of University of Rwanda's College of Education celebrate during their graduation recently. One cannot graduate even if they pass all the other subjects but fail an English proficiency test. (Timothy Kisambira)
Students of University of Rwanda's College of Education celebrate during their graduation recently. One cannot graduate even if they pass all the other subjects but fail an English proficiency test. (Timothy Kisambira)

Recently, the University of Rwanda College of Science and Technology blocked 156 students from proceeding to the next level for one reason: they failed an English exam despite passing other course units. The decision attracted mixed reactions from the public, with most people arguing that one doesn’t need to know English to do their work well, while university officials maintain that they are simply implementing a policy.

Public speaks out


Elly Muhire, a businessman in Kibagabaga, believes stopping a student proceeding to the next level just because they have failed English very unfair given one’s level of sacrifice over the years.


“Although the argument sounds right, I feel it is one-sided. We have all been to school at some point, the hardships a student endures are many and I don’t think blocking one’s progress to the next academic year help them in anyway,” Muhire says.


Leopold Muneza, a resident of Kinyinya, also agrees with Muhire. He says what matters is whether one can rightly apply the knowledge and skills acquired at school, not how much English they know.

“We have seen engineers who speak good English but fail to put up perfect structures yet those considered poor at the language have turned out to become one of the best builders,” Muneza says.

For Aimee Munyamariza, a resident of Kicukiro, waiting for a year to redo an English exam is a waste of time and resources.

“It is frustrating to waste a whole year in the name of waiting to re-sit an English exam. That time can be used to do more constructive things,” Munyamariza says.

But Allan Musafiri from Nyarutarama sides with the university’s move to deter those who fail English from graduating, arguing that English proficiency is an added advantage especially in the labour market.

“There are academic standards and the issue of repeating the subject should not be taken lightly if one really knows the meaning of success. It is possible to pass these languages and students should learn to work hard in life,” Musafiri says.

Experts speak out

According the Higher Education Council, national policy on language teaching in higher institutions of learning requires that English be taught alongside other subjects or course units in order to equip students with the necessary language skills. Although this policy is mandatory for only undergraduate students on day-time programmes, evening and distance students, plus postgraduate students are expected to be proficient in whatever languages they need for their studies, and this may be made a requirement for admission.

The policy also states that students have to proceed through various levels with proficiency tests that are supposed to be passed satisfactorily except in a few circumstances, where a student who is otherwise qualified to progress but has failed the English language module, may be permitted to progress to year two. Those who fail in the final year have no other option but to retake the course for an extra year.

Most experts maintain that higher institutions of education need be left to perform the duty of assessing student’s quality among which includes good communication skills and language proficiency.

According to Dr Abdallah Baguma, the acting director academic quality, Higher Education Council, universities follow certain criteria while selecting students for both admission and graduation. He, for instance, points out that through the continuous assessment, both core courses and prerequisite courses contribute to a student’s final grades and none of them should be taken lightly.

“It is within the institutional design that a student passes these courses and that is how to meet the requirements for a degree,” Baguma says. Asked about the growing frustration by the public over higher institution policies, Baguma maintains that trust in institutions should exceed mere admiration for admission into the university.

“People usually become excited when their children get admitted to universities but they forget that they should trust the institution to properly prepare the student for a competitive global market,” he adds.

On his part, Jerome Gasana, the director of Work force Development Authority (WDA), explains that institutions are now focusing on the quality of education in order to compete regionally hence the need for a holistic package of language proficiency.

“It is high time we switched to focusing on excellence. English should not be just used as a medium of instruction but should move along with other practical skills that we are promoting,” Gasana explains.

He adds that although working with minimal language skills is possible, it leaves one less competitive and competent.

“If you are an engineer and you need to work abroad with people who use English all the time, are you going to hire an interpreter?” he asks. “Even the growing practice of distant education and business the English language is a requirement and that is how you easily communicate with people.”

Students do a science practical. Regardless of which course one pursues, they are required to study English. (Internet)

English not for scientists?

This year, most students who failed the English language exam were from the science departments such as civil engineering and computer engineering prompting people to conclude that scientists cannot handle English.

But Dr Baguma dismisses these claims and instead puts the blame of poor communication and proficiency skills on the environment.

“Learning requires a holistic approach. To master the English language, you need to read a lot on top of sufficient usage in and out of the classroom,” he says.

Although Dr Charles Gahima, the principal of University of Rwanda College of Education, Rukara campus, agrees that whoever fails an English exam must re-do it, he believes the proficiency tests should be course-centred.

“If you are doing languages, then you must excel in English. However for those studying other disciplines like medicine, the requirements should be much simpler because medics can still work and learn while on the job,” Dr Gahima explains.

He also highlights the risk of not learning English.

“All courses are taught in English. Obviously someone who has failed English faces difficult time with other subjects somewhere,” he says.

While many students are allowed to continue to the third level, Gahima advises that institutions should ensure that such cases are dealt with in the early stages of the course.

“At Rukara, the problem of the English language is usually with first years but during the second year most of them are conversant because of the remedial lessons we put in place. So the problem is wiped out early enough and we have not had any cases,” Gahima adds.

English at university: Is it that important?

Freedom Kabarere
Jeannette Muhongayire

Freedom Kabarere, law student at the University of Kigali

Redoing an exam is good because it sharpens one’s grasp of the subject. I support the idea of emphasizing the importance of English because students should be competent. If they are half-baked then they will find problems competing for jobs.

Joselyne Umurerwa, a student at Akilah Institute

Redoing a paper is not the problem but the time involved. It is very inconveniencing to wait for a whole year to repeat just one test. I wish the university management would find a shorter alternative. 

Felicia Tombola
Donna Kayites

Felicia Tombola, a journalist at

Redoing a test is a good idea. For instance, those people training to become teachers, how do they expect to go out there and teach students the subject they have failed? The system is good for both students and the community.

Donna Kayitesi, fresh graduate Akilah Institute

I wouldn’t wish anyone to be left behind while others move ahead. If one misses the pass mark by few points, then they should be allowed to proceed to the next level. Only those who fail miserably should be blocked from progressing.

Daniel Namanya

Daniel Namanya, the director of studies Akilah Institute

In terms of academics, it’s worth it. Students who have failed specific subjects are not supposed to be allowed to move to the next level. The best way is to accept their weakness and try to improve. Repeating the paper shouldn’t be taken as a punishment.

Jeannette Muhongayire

Jeannette Muhongayire, a businesswoman in Kimironko

It is not worth wasting a year to repeat one paper considering the high costs involved especially for those paying for their education. It is discouraging and heart breaking for both students and parents. If they have excelled in the other subjects, they should allow them to proceed to the next level.

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