During the 2010/11 Budget , the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning (minecofin) announced a 25 percent cut on funding for public institutions of higher learning. The move is likely to radically change the way the higher education system is managed. While some public institutions have resorted to new adoptive measures, Fred Oluoch-Ojiwah spoke to Prof. Geoffrey Rugege, Executive Director of the Higher Education Council on future prospects of funding for the higher learning system. Excerpts.
Kindly give us the status of your work and mission.
The primary mission of the Higher Education Council is the maintenance of quality assurance in the provision of higher education in Rwanda. The council’s primary duty is to ensure that higher learning institutions in Rwanda produce citizens capable of playing their part in the Rwandan economy. The council will ensure that higher education institutions design programmes that for instance, meet the demands of the labour market while being seen to ensure that graduates are fit for this purpose and are internationally credible.
Ever since you arrived on the scene, in what can be said to be your inputs?
The council was set up in 2006 through an act of parliament. Then we started operations in 2007. Since that time our mandate is to ensure that we carry out assessments of institutions of higher learning in the country for the purposes of accrediting them.
The national higher education system has various challenges much as remarkable progress has been done. Any workable solutions your council is embarking on?
While trying to go about our work we also encounter challenges that mainly have to do with collecting information. I am talking about data on these institutions.
The idea is that with credible data we are able to map out the way forward and to track progress on targets set by government. Our duty is to establish a road map showing how we get there so that we have facts and figures as to how many teachers and lecturers are in each college and how many students we are able to put into the work force each year and how many jobs will need to create in order to achieve the government‘s goals.
The goals include economic goals through training of both students and teachers. All these factors combined will enable us to achieve our target.
Some time back government instituted moves to clamp down on academic staff with dubious qualifications. What is being done to pre-empt such shortcomings?
As you well know, it is impossible for a council like ours to monitor each and every institution each and every day. However, having said that, I must add that these institutions have leaders-the Rectors with other team members— whose mandate is to monitor the quality of academic staff. I must point out that the fact that once in a while our council does on-site performance evaluation of the academic staff of these institutions. Despite having such a monitoring mechanism we cannot be seen to be policing these institutions. We cannot do that. However , individual institutions have a critical role to play in monitoring the quality of academic staff.
Harmonization of the academic staff pay seems to be a challenge in as much as expatriate staff being considered over and above local staff.
That is a sensitive issue. The word expatriate is a buzzword used widely within the labour sector. However it must be put in the right context while talking about higher education. For instance if you are hired as a Rector definitely you would want higher productivity and higher quality. In that case it will be only too natural for you to do whatever it takes to attract top talent. Such top talent would naturally be sourced from top universities world wide.
Now, the main issue will be coming up with a satisfactory package that will bring such talent to Rwanda. Remember that in such a situation this particular new member of staff has to be brought to Rwanda from the comfort of his or her home and work station. When such a package is eventually worked out naturally it will not be similar to that given to our local staff. Given this scenario local staff do not necessarily consider quality and productivity. Local staff would only consider equity. By this I mean that local staff would only look at their entitlement as citizens of this country.
So the challenge seems to be striking a balance between equity needs of local staff and meeting needs of foreign top talent.
What you are talking about are simply ideals. However at times rectors can sidestep such an arrangement. When Rectors sidestep such ideals such a situation can give rise to an environment whereby some foreign staff with dubious qualifications can be brought in. Naturally people would complain. Meaning that our council would have to monitor such institutions to ensure that such expatriates that are very highly paid are actually productive.
How do you achieve a perfect blend between quality and quantity within provision of higher education?
It is a real problem because we need the numbers. But we also need quality. We are aware that we need quality. That is the reason we hire expensive rectors. Most of the rectors within our public institutions are expatriates. These are top talents whether in Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST), the National University of Rwanda(NUR) or Kigali Institute of Education( KIE). These are leaders who can operate anywhere in the world.
So we would hope that in their daily jobs they would do a good job in ensuring high-quality staff coming in to teach. On our part the council strives to monitor the situation through undertaking various studies on the quality of the graduates. We follow up graduates wherever they work.
For instance we interview employers to ascertain their concerns and to measure their levels of satisfaction with the graduates. The idea is to try to achieve the balance between quality and quantity.
There seems to be a disconnect between the world of academia and industry in Rwanda. This is in stark contrast with other countries whereby there is a perfect relationship between the two
Other countries you are talking about are definitely fortunate to have such an arrangement. But I must also say that Rwanda is not the only country where the academia languishes in the ivory tower. Languishing in the ivory tower is premised on the idea that knowledge is dispensed for the sake of merely dispensing it. Even in some of the leading universities in the world professors teach for the love of knowledge. Rwanda’s population and higher learning institutions have to be sensitized on the needs of working closely with its industry in the coming days.
How about the blend between private and public universities?
I see things in simple terms. To me private universities are out to make money while public universities are out for public good. Public universities do what the government says. The private universities on the other hand will do whatever it takes to impress their shareholders just like it is with a private company. That is the main difference. Given this situation you cannot stop people from establishing private universities to make money for their shareholders. Until the government says that you cannot have universities that make money, then the current situation will still prevail.
Let us talk about financing of higher education in Rwanda
Rwanda is one of the very few places in the world where higher education is free. However, the country is about to devise a way to make sure that much as students are learning, they still have to pay for their way through higher learning.
At the regional level, the majority of students pay for their higher education. We are trying to change the system in Rwanda so that students pay up. The government has supported them so far. For the very bright ones, government gives out scholarships. However for average students it is up to them to pay up.
That seems to be the ideal situation as along the way, deserving cases also miss out going by media reports recently where fresh students at NUR and other colleges were thrown out of classes.
People have to change their mindsets on this issue. It is only the brightest who will be considered for scholarships.