Expectations are high after the latest East African Community (EAC) Heads of State Summit in Tanzania declared the region as a common higher education area in a bid to harmonise and enhance quality of education.
The leaders directed the Council of Ministers, the central decision-making and governing organ of the Community, to operationalise the EAC Common Higher Education Area (EACHEA).
Prof. Alexandre Lyambabaje, executive secretary of the Inter-University Council for East Africa (IUCEA), told The New Times that implementation of the initiative is all that was left because policies to guide it are already in place.
For the past five years, the Council has worked on developing policies and tools for harmonising the bloc’s higher education systems.
“What is next now is to operationalise that common higher education area under the coordination of ministers in charge of higher education in partner states,” Lyambabaje said.
EACHEA entails formation of a common frame of reference to facilitate comparability, compatibility and mutual recognition of higher education and training systems.
It encompasses qualifications, which are based on shared views on quality, criteria, standards and learning outcomes, for promoting students and labour mobility in the region.
Gerard Mbabazi, a final year medical student at the University of Rwanda, is happy as he will be able to seek employment across the region regardless of where he graduates from.
“There will be an improved learning outcome in relation to competencies and skills gained. Considering that rationalisation of the labour market is one of the goals for the EAC, a graduate from Rwanda will confidently apply for a job in Kenya or Uganda as the quality of graduates produced within the region will be the same,” Mbabazi said.
According to Lyambabaje, the key element is the facilitation of free movement of students to be able to take courses in one university, accumulate credits and validate those courses in the original university and graduate.
“It means that if you identify a course that is not offered in your country, you can go and take that course in another university in the region and come back and validate it and graduate,” Prof. Lyambabaje said.
“The second thing is about equal treatment of students across the bloc. It is not yet the case although the Council directed all partner states to give equal treatment to students coming from the Community. We still have some cases where universities charge students from partner states a fee as foreigners.”
‘Good for choices’
Prof. Geoffrey Rugege, the vice-chancellor at the African Leadership University (ALU), is optimistic.
“Altogether, a Common Higher Education Area is a worthy policy development. I got my first degree from the University of East Africa back in the day,” he said.
Originally instituted as an independent external college of the University of London, the University of East Africa was established in 1963 and served Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, before it was split in 1970 into three independent varsities: University of Nairobi (Kenya), Makerere University (Uganda), and University of Dar-es-Salaam (Tanzania).
With regard to student mobility, Rugege noted, it would be great if students could choose any university they wanted in the region.
“Of course, the students would have to consider whether tuition, accommodation and transport would be factored into the financial aid they would apply for in their countries. It is possible that there are disparities in fee structures in different EAC countries,” Rugege said.
On the other hand, Lyambabaje said, there are many issues related to fee structure but noted that the latter will “be validated this week” and the IUCEA will take it to partner states and, once it is adopted, regional varsities will then implement the policy.
IUCEA has scheduled a two-day meeting in June to tackle the issue of fee structure, among others.
Emmanuel Muvunyi, the executive director of Higher Education Council (HEC), said “it is still an issue and one of the things we are going to look at is how best it can be structured.”
Staff mobility is encouraged across the world and is “an excellent idea for EAC,” says Rugege.
“Again, one would have to consider the financing of such exchanges. Developed countries handle this through grants and scholarships. There are also salary disparities in each country,” Prof. Rugege said.
Instruments developed to facilitate the EACHEA’s implementation include a regional quality assurance system and a qualifications framework for higher education.
The others are a students’ mobility policy, and benchmarks for academic programmes.
“What we now really want to see is all those policies and tools effectively used by higher learning institutions and agreed upon by all partner states,” Lyambabaje said.
The declaration applies to South Sudan, the Community’s newest member. IUCEA officials plan to travel to Juba in the near future to assess how to start working with their universities.
Special needs education
Meanwhile, according to Muvunyi, education experts in EAC are also mulling ways to cater for east African students who have special educational needs due to severe learning difficulties, physical disabilities or behavioural problems.
“We can’t forget special needs students. We’ve been discussing, at EAC-level, how partner states can best harmonise systems to provide for them when it comes to admissions, methodology of teaching and learning, among others,” Muvunyi said.