Following its merger, the University of Rwanda passed out its first graduates in various disciplines and levels this year and among them was Dr Agnès Binagwaho, the Minister for Health.
Dr Binagwaho was conferred with a Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD) in Health Management and did research on the HIV/Aids epidemic, with Rwanda as her case study.
Binagwaho, who started the course in 2008 before the merger of the institution, managed to juggle her studies, her ministerial role, her work as a senior visiting lecturer in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School and clinical professor of pediatrics at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, USA.
In an exclusive interview with Women Today’s Collins Mwai, the minister explains the reasons, necessity and modalities of higher learning.
You are a minister, a lecturer in two top universities in the world and you have a stable career. Why the need to return to school?
The President always says “never remain in your comfort zone, always challenge yourself.” I am a strong believer in that too. The day you believe you have nothing to learn is the day you begin to die. Even in retirement, there are numerous lessons to learn.
How did you juggle between your roles through school?
We all have the same number of hours in a day; it is up to you to choose how you will spend your time. I prefer to spend mine learning and doing research. I was comfortable juggling my various roles and school. It is always easier if you have a passion for what you do.
You had the capacity to undertake your PHD anywhere in the world but you chose to do it here, why?
I first registered as a PhD student at the university while it was still National University of Rwanda (NUR). While working, a PhD takes between four and six years, it happened that I graduated after the universities had merged.
I wanted to do a PhD in my country because in many areas, this country is quite advanced in policy planning and strategy. We have riches and innovation. I am against the idea of going out for PhDs when quality education is available here. To anyone in doubt about the quality of our higher learning institution, I can tell them for sure that I did not experience challenges while pursuing the qualification.
I also wanted to prove to people who I work with that it is possible to balance work and school. If I can do it, they too can do it.
At the ministry we have been urging people to take on master’s degrees, currently most people have the qualification while others are pursuing PhDs. I am a strong believer that the best thing you can do for yourself is add more knowledge to what you have.
The requirement to work at the Ministry previously was a degree, now it is a master’s degree; we have made arrangements so that they can all have an opportunity to advance. Higher learning is a benefit to the institution and the people served by the institution. From my Ministry I have seen them have better and in-depth understanding of circumstances and solutions to approach them.
If you research more on what you do, you become a master in the domain and can perform better. It is an advantage to you, your institution and your community.
Most women of the young generation currently view higher learning only as a means to higher salaries; you clearly see it quite differently, why is that?
Money and a high salary is not the end, it should not be, it is just a tool. We have people who are rich but end up taking their lives. Education gives you fulfillment and purpose. Continuous education has numerous benefits. You will never know enough.
There has previously been talk that quality higher learning can only be obtained abroad, do you believe so too?
It is not true, in one way; even those institutions come here to learn from us. They borrow ideas from here and go teach them abroad. That is part of what we are trying to educate people in the Ministry, to do further research, document their findings, and share it on bigger platforms internationally.
I came to Rwanda as a young pediatrician, being here I have had an international dimension and learnt in numerous ways over the years. You do not have to go abroad to learn, I have been known for what I have learnt and done here, I never asked for a job at Harvard, they asked me.
You can create the universal bank of knowledge here. Some ministries in this country have pioneered initiatives and leadership models that have never been practiced anywhere in the world. There is a lot to learn from here, it is time people realised how much the world can learn from us.
Among other things you are a lecturer, what is the one thing you insist on with your students?
The importance of participatory processes; working closely with the community that you are working for, you need to listen to them and learn from them. People in certain positions need to work with the people for the people.
What would you say of people with high academic qualifications but do not reflect their qualifications in performance?
They probably do not further their studies to serve better, or challenge themselves. Some could study to have bigger titles on their business cards. They also probably do not have well laid plans and strategies. Always have one. Since I began working in leadership positions I have learnt that as long as you have a guide like Vision 2020 and Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy (EDPRS2) you can come up with strategies to get there.
What advice do you have for people reluctant to pursue higher learning?
Education is key, the more educated you are the more functional you are. Good education is one that helps you improve the world around you and is practical. There is no limit, the best reward you can have is to see the result of what you do. Do not run after money, it will always be needed, but it is never the end.