Universities must make their voices heard on matters of public policy

Friday August 16 2013

Frank Kagabo

Frank Kagabo  

By Frank Kagabo

For many Rwandans accustomed to recent headlines of winning global applause for posting high achievements; coming near the top of the World Bank doing business rankings, registering near universal health insurance, the news of the poor rankings by the country’s universities, must have come at a wrong time.

Rwanda, is by regional standards, effectively run from the top to the local levels, with the state ever present.

For the nationals, most services are run in a way that is largely efficient; traffic police will not hassle you for a bribe, neither will the immigration officers if you want to get a passport or any other service.

The visitors seem impressed by a place that is tidy, and simple rules like traffic regulations are adhered to. State institutions function. Others speak of young and efficient government civil servants occupying all levels in the public sector, doing what they are required to do.

It would follow that for such a group of well-educated and focused young public servants to be able to do what they are doing, there has to be a training ground where they are readied for such tasks.

But our schools are posting poorly!

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The explanation could lie in the fact that most of those recruited into these public sector jobs, are people who have at least had part of their education, especially at postgraduate level, outside Rwanda.

This is because taking a look at Rwanda’s education sector, and going by several rankings of its education institutions over time, the evidence suggests that these institutions are yet to find their footing.

The National University of Rwanda (NUR) in Butare, has for long been the flagship institution supposed to produce Rwanda’s elite.

More often than not, employers especially in the private sector who are profit motivated and want to see value for their money, have become increasingly impatient with graduates who cannot do the simple tasks assigned to them.

At one time complaints of university graduates, unable to write a coherent application letter for employment have surfaced.

The ranking, by webometrics, is primarily about Web presence of the University especially the ability of professors to publish their research articles. That may not necessarily help to shine a light on all weaknesses of our universities.

But it helps to remind us of the problem that many are well aware of.

Beyond the poor postings by NUR and KIST, it is generally obvious that in Africa, there is only a handful of universities that can claim to being world class. So what is the root cause of the problem?

One certain reason is the connection between the long years of misrule by sometimes, semi-literate military dictators and the decline of the universities.

In the years following independence, several African Universities had made a mark as centres of excellence and had made a good reputation for themselves.

But the years when military dictatorships emerged on the scene, marked a period of steady decline of universities. They were starved of funding and the best researchers fled to exile or got killed.

Many years after the return of relative stability and more enlightened leadership, they are yet to recover, find their footing and compete.

Apart from training our workforce, universities need to make their presence felt in matters of public policy debate and formulation.

Rarely as a journalist in Rwanda, do you find a university professor with expertise in a given field willing to come out and make independent and critical comment on an important issue of public policy being debated in the country.

Universities are historically known as bastions of academic freedom, free speech and debate even in countries that are under difficult situations. It is here that the sometimes uncontrived utterances of political leaders are put to scrutiny.

It is at university that many form their ideas, engage in activism and determine their role in the future of their nations.

More so, student political and social activism is dormant in our universities. Yet what goes on in our education institutions is an indicator of what the future holds.

Frank Kagabo is an Erasmus Mundus graduate student of journalism, media and globalisation at Aarhus University, Denmark, and Swansea University, the UK, specialising in war and conflict reporting. E-mail: [email protected]; Twitter: @kagabo

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