Re-think the relevance of University Education

THE UNIVERSITY has traditionally been the archetypal ivory tower. It has stood as a haven for the kind of scholarship that is at least indifferent to the pressures of the socioeconomic order – if not actively subversive to it.
Sam Kebongo
Sam Kebongo

THE UNIVERSITY has traditionally been the archetypal ivory tower. It has stood as a haven for the kind of scholarship that is at least indifferent to the pressures of the socioeconomic order – if not actively subversive to it.

Whereas, today it is essentially a gold-plated monument of diligence, the proof of one’s hard work and, yes, intelligence; we need to understand what the mission of the university is. If higher education is to thrive in the fast changing 21st century, especially in our corner of the globe, which is among the fastest growing globally, colleges and universities, , must be completely restructured to make them more responsive, adaptive and imaginative to the needs of the society.

This should be nothing new given that the university’s mission is academic, research, and community service. All the three mission items are conducted within and should be for the society. The truth is a little different in our situation though.

Take an example of a year or two ago when there was a major symposium on malaria research. One would expect the National University of Rwanda to be hosting this. It was not even a major player at the conference.  Entrepreneurship development is also a major area that we, as a country are depending on to realise vision 2020. Our premier business school is the School of Finance and Banking (SFB). It is thus strange and disappointing that they are typically missing in action on matters entrepreneurship.  They should be having an entrepreneurship major (not one measly unit) and be guiding the society in events like Rwanda and Global Entrepreneurship Week where they never feature.

The central question(s) about the purpose of education in our society in the information age comes up. Can we, the so called ‘less developed/ underdeveloped/ third world countries, use universities to propel us forward in the knowledge and information age? If so, how?

For starters, university tuition is not cheap. Poor students only manage only through loans and scholarships. No one is a more shining example of this than the American President, Barack Obama. Once done with university, many of these hitherto poor have a better future; this makes university a tool of ensuring equity.

Ideally, the achievements of students and research fellows in fields like customer service that has become our bane in Rwanda would go along say in solving societal problems. This would be especially useful if universities worked with other sectors and vice versa. Universities in their normative role have a responsibility is with regard to social problems and it is a problem-solving service that they should offer.

As it is, their social contribution does not equal surplus value. We are putting in more than we are getting back. It is a bad investment. We do not need to produce crammers who regurgitate ‘old knowledge’. We need problem solvers.

This calls for a restructuring the academy’s place in the social order. Until that happens, no matter what bureaucratic rearrangements and curricular changes go on, nothing will improve.

The knowledge they produce must be relevant; and anticipatorily so. What are the knowledge needs of the society, country and the region? This is one of the questions curriculum developers must answer. There is no justification to spend or invest so much for land, time, money, buildings, technology and professors in universities to impart so little skill, knowledge and expertise.

And yes, if universities are made efficient and managed and organized scientifically, by spending one tenth of the resources, including manpower, they can be made tenfold efficient and effective.

We must critically think about the very relevance and meaning of our universities. Their existence must be justified. Yes, we do need universities; but only when formulas and processes we use in our day tasks and projects come from the professors who taught and researched at universities. Not only should universities allow professors to aid in research, but they should also help students work and expand into those areas of research to gain firsthand experience. Society has to play an active role in this. Knowledge should also be experiential

Finally, we need to do away with this ‘go to university craze” Not everyone has to go to university. We have many different types of post secondary institutions for varying programmes, we need to have more. If university is not for you, you can try one of the colleges, technical schools or technology institutions. This it allows people choice of study.

Universities need to be innovative and progressive. They must stop paying lip service to their missions.

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