Are private universities enhancing the levels education and competitiveness?

THE GROWTH of Rwanda’s education sector has been phenomenal. According to the Ministry of Education website, there are now over 26 higher education institutes up from just one, in 1994. 
Sam Kebongo
Sam Kebongo

THE GROWTH of Rwanda’s education sector has been phenomenal. According to the Ministry of Education website, there are now over 26 higher education institutes up from just one, in 1994. 

This is after the consolidation of various public universities into the University of Rwanda. 

Significantly, at least fifteen of these universities are private. Indeed most university students in Rwanda go to private universities. 

The contribution of private universities to the education sector can, therefore, not be underestimated. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true; that their potential to further harm and erode gains made in the education sector by such benefits resulting from actions like  as consolidation of public universities into University of Rwanda are something that we must be wary of.

A while back, the spotlight on the private universities revealed some disturbing facts. 

This newspaper on November 27th, 2013, revealed that some, if not most private universities had flouted admission rules that had been put in place as far back as 2007. As a result of this over 1,000 students were dismissed. 

These students did not meet minimum qualification criteria. They should not have been admitted in the first place. Now that the dust seems to have settled on this we can look at the private universities with a keener eye.

Private universities in Rwanda, and indeed the world over, face unique challenges. In addition to fulfilling the university missions of teaching, research and community service; they have the bigger mission, or so it seems, of recouping their investment and adding onto to it by making and sustaining profit. 

In all fairness this is no mean task. If one considers the high demand for a skilled workforce in the economy and the resultant demand for higher education, then it is easy to see why propriety is likely to be under due and undue strain and corners and shortcuts may take over. 

This is the root-cause of the ails facing private universities in Rwanda.

As mentioned before, the Rwandan education sector has come a long way. It is now time to interrogate the quality of education that comes from our institutions. How many students have graduated from these institutions? 

How competent are they in their work places? How do they compare to others with the same qualifications from elsewhere? How is this quality maintained and enhanced in our universities, more so in the private institutions? These and related questions should dominate the minds of the education gurus.

The profit motive has been the driver of practices that are not above board (how else would we explain non-compliance with basic rules for over six years?); it need not be. World renowned universities such as Harvard, Yale, MIT and closer home Strathmore University in Kenya are private universities. They are as stellar as they can be.

How can our private universities then scale up their standards to avoid being seen as mere ‘certificate churning outfits’? Long term vision comes first. 

The need to recover investment quick is only natural. But it must be counterweighed by the desire to leave a lasting legacy. I suspect that setting up a university for pure utilitarian reasons is a very bad idea. 

Planning should be based on long term vision. Such plan must include the desire for high standards in policy and practice. As computer experts say; ‘garbage in garbage out’. 

You cannot expect to produce high quality graduates when you admit student who barely scraped through high school. As my grandmother would say, “...you cannot make a pot out of beach sand.”

Still on standards, private universities base their best practices on High Education Board’s (HEB) minimum standards. Even then there is mostly a last minute rush to fulfil the same. The universities that will thrive in Rwanda are those who set their standards over and above government regulator’s benchmarks.

There is also need for all courses to be practical (yes, even history!) our teaching has at best been historical. It needs to be ‘real time’. 

We need to teach for the present and the future. To do that effectively, the universities need to collaborate with the relevant sectors and not only for internships as is the case presently.

Are private universities in Rwanda adding value? Yes, but they can do better, far much better. 

Sam Kebongo is an entrepreneurship Development Consultant based in Kigali. 

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