The campaign season is over, and its business as usual. Rwandans were keen to exercise their democratic right and the National Electoral Commission did not delay to make public the voters’ verdict. I have no intentions to discuss the details of the results and what they mean to the nation. Some analysts have already adequately done so.
Rather, I will reflect on an issue around which many candidates built their manifestoes. And, that is education.
Having been part of a post-genocide leadership that chose education as a strategic pillar for our country’s development, all the four candidates well understood the dividends of our education programmes over the past 16 years.
They all knew that ordinary Rwandans are concerned with the education of their children, thanks to a new mindset in much of the countryside.
Most candidates talked about the need to promote access as well as quality of education. Specifically, some talked about the need to promote the less conventional vocational and technical education system, while others promised to bring kindergartens much closer to kids. Great ideas, I thought.
The real problems in our education system goes well beyond ensuring that every Rwandan child goes to school, all through the university level. No question about it, there’s plenty to show of our ambitious education programmes since 1994.
And, thanks to the new universal education programme, millions of Rwandan children will now have the opportunity to make it to at least Senior Three, and later to Senior Six, as President Paul Kagame promised during his campaign.
However, along with access, we need quality education, something the government seems committed to as well. But quality will be hard to come by without an almost complete overhaul of our education system. Much of our syllabi remain highly theoretical.
This has resulted in our training institutions churning out graduates who are excellent academically, but so poor in practical skills. Our private sector and indeed the public sector have already felt the impact.
To bridge the skills gap across the economy there is a need to fix our education system by moving away from a classic academic system to a more practical one, that responds to the needs of the industry.
When such institutions as Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) were established in the aftermath of the Genocide, there was a belief that they will specialize in hands-on courses, and therefore, produce graduates who will effectively bridge much of the skills gap in our labour market.
However, most of these institutions later evolved into conventional academic institutions and increasingly grew more interested in counting the number of graduates. Perhaps, this shift could be partly attributed to the public pressure to have these institutions upgraded to a degree-awarding status.
In any case, it was more of a mentality issue.
And the consequences have been highly costly with graduates struggling to become relevant at the labour market, which needs hands-on professionals and not scholarly bureaucrats. As a result, many companies had to incur huge expenses to train their newly recruited staff in basic hands-on skills.
The broader effect is that, some of the frustrated graduates have had to look for scholarships to enroll for a Masters Course, with the hope that, upon completion, they will then land senior managerial positions that will require them to just supervise others and approve administrative requests.
However, not all educated Rwandans will become supervisors. You can have the best of policies and thinkers but you need a critical mass of highly skilled professionals who will roll up their sleeves and make things happen.
To avoid this trend, we need to revisit our approach to education, and develop a culture of accumulating skills other than academic documents. Degrees are good, but their value rests more in the ability of someone to execute a task efficiently.
A recent study commissioned by the Public Service Commission showed that some skills that are vital in our country’s development were not offered by local tertiary institutions. This calls for an immediate review of the curricula of our institutions of higher learning.
They need to concentrate more on skills that are needed on the labour market and get rid of outdated content.
Furthermore, the government needs to strengthen and streamline its Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) policy, which, if well implemented, will see many Rwandan youths empowered with the right hands-on skills.
That way, and only that way, shall our workforce be able to compete with, or even outdo, their colleagues from the other East Africa Community partner states and beyond, in the increasingly liberalized markets of this era.
The views of the losing candidates on this issue need to be looked into critically, and possibly integrated into our education programmes, for the good our common future.