Over a week ago, Webometrics, the largest web based evaluator of higher institutions of learning released its ranking of universities.
Ranked at 77 in Africa and 4,470 in the world, the National University of Rwanda (NUR) is the only university in the country among the first 170 in Africa (KIST is ranked 171; 8,559 in the world and KIE 340 and 13,627 respectively).
Rightly, the media reported that NUR had dropped, losing a whopping 830 positions up from 3,631 in the world and 58th on the continent since last year.
Clarifying the drop, the NUR Research Director Prof Verdiana Masanja wrote that while the number of “…research production has gone up compared with last year based on the number of applications to attend conferences, the number of research projects that are ongoing and completed and the number of NUR staff on PhD studies who produce papers as they do their studies”, the drop in rank can be attributed to the fact that Rwandan journals are not ranked and those in African are lowly ranked.
To a measure, Prof Masanja is correct. In fact, one could add that since the reopening of the NUR in 1995 after the genocide, both the numbers of students graduating as well as the papers produced have gone up every year.
For example, between 1996 and 2011, the NUR graduated 8,276 students. And all these produced what was then called “dissertations”. So what explains the drop in ranking, if, numerically, the numbers of students and output of papers have gone up besides contributing to rebuilding the country’s human resource capital?
For starters, researchers are normally supposed to be peers in their respective fields regardless of culture, geography or race. In that sense, if for example one specialises in sociology, such a person is supposed to compete globally with the rest in the same field.
While there are area studies and specialisation, the key for a serious researcher is to compete with peers globally. That Rwandan researchers mainly publish in non-ranked local journals rather than internationally tells a story of who we are.
Again, and most importantly, ranking also takes into account quality; in fact, this is what publishing in international journals requires.
Thus stated however, to better understand why, overall, Rwanda universities rank poorly, it’s important to factor in three broad trends and two related policy actions.
Rwanda universities have never, historically, really competed in anything. This is why, while some universities have created renowned world scholars, Nobel laureates and innovators; I know none from our quarters; except, sadly, genocide perpetrators like Dr Nahimana Ferdinand et al.
The second trend came after the genocide. Due to high numbers of the educated killed in the genocide and the fact that the most educated also participated in the slaughter and were, by 1995, either in prison or on the run, the post-genocide education system emphasised quantity or number of graduates over quality to fill the gap.
Emphasising quantity went hand in hand with an increase in the number of higher institutions offering degrees. In 1995, there was only one, today, there are more than 20.
The third trend that has severely affected quality is the privatisation of education in the years after around 1999. This policy cemented quantity of graduates over quality with the new higher institutions of learning concentrating on survival, competing for students, fees and pressuring lecturers to pass students even when many didn’t have the capacity nor the motivated will to concentrate and pass exams on merit.
Due to the above, there is no way our institutions of higher learning would manage to compete globally.
Bear in mind that research is also an expensive enterprise. Yet, while the Ministry of education is one of the sectors that get the lion’s share of the national budget, most of the money goes into operational costs such as paying salaries and administration rather than research.
Dr Christopher Kayumba, PhD, is a senior lecturer at the National University of Rwanda and Managing Consultant at MGC Consult Ltd. E-mail: [email protected]; Twitter: @ckayumba