EAST AFRICA: Moves to harmonise higher education

The East African Community's five member countries have inched closer to harmonising and standardising their university education systems, potentially boosting student access and mobility. But the improvements will require major changes to individual countries' education systems.

The Inter-University Council of East Africa Bill was recently published and introduced to the region's legislative assembly. Among other things the bill seeks to allow thousands of university students to move freely across the bloc's institutions via a credit transfer arrangement. The bill will also push universities to review degree classification criteria to meet regional standards, as it strives to harmonise university education in the region.

MPs in the legislative assembly, where the bill is currently being debated, have welcomed the latest move, saying the bill will boost the quality of learning and improve dwindling access in individual countries.

"This bill will greatly transform how higher education is managed in the EAC as countries move to integration," said legislative assembly member Gervase Akhaabi at a conference in Nairobi last week attended by representatives from the five East African Community countries: Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.

"Most MPs are in support of the bill and we hope it will soon be enacted to transform university education," said Akhaabi.

Kenya, for example, is grappling with a university admissions crisis that has seen at least 40,000 qualified students denied access to higher education annually due to shortage of spaces in the seven public universities. Other countries are also battling access issues.

Enactment of the bill means that it will be possible for a Tanzanian student, for example, to enrol at the University of Dar es Salaam for a degree but graduate at Kenya's University of Nairobi under a credit accumulation and transfer system.

But the bill will mean major changes to individual countries' education systems. For example, Kenyan universities will be forced to raise their cut-off point for a first class degree to 75% (up from 70% currently), to level classification with Tanzania and Uganda, whose students have to score 80% to gain university entry; while those two nations will have to reduce their points. A pass will be graded at 50%.

The bill aims to achieve a unified university education system in the region, an objective that flopped with the 1977 collapse of the East African Community, a bloc that was revived recently. EAC countries have already set in motion an integration process that saw them sign a Common Market Protocol in July, allowing free access of labour and goods across the region.

The Inter-University Council of East Africa, or IUCEA, which is pushing for the harmonisation of higher education systems, says the first courses to be levelled are medicine, agriculture, engineering and basic sciences, whose curricula have already been finalised.

Professor Chacha Nyaigotti-Chacha, executive secretary of the IUCEA, recently told reporters that the harmonisation process should be able to look beyond undergraduate studies.

"Our masters and PhD programmes are not harmonised. You find that in some universities a student may take 10 years to complete PhD studies, while in others they take four years. We need to look at the duration that one should take in postgraduate studies," Nyaigotti-Chacha said.

In a related move, newly-established medical institutions will have to be approved by regional regulatory bodies. These universities will now have to adhere to a set of standards developed by regulatory and professional bodies from East Africa.

Harmonising university education in the region will also mean standardisation. Teaching staff from one country will be able to work at any university in the region.

The governments of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda fostered the establishment of the present day IUCEA in 1980, with the objective of facilitating contact between the universities of East Africa, providing a forum for discussion on a range of academic and other matters relating to higher education, and helping maintain high and comparable academic standards.

But the system could increase the cost pressures on universities, as more expensive institutions may ultimately find themselves with fewer students as students opt for cheaper alternatives in one of the five member countries. Education experts have warned this will increase competition for students, prompting some universities to charge lower fees.

"The credit accumulation and transfer system will however create a situation where universities - because of a need to stay afloat financially - will scramble for students in the region, potentially lowering education standards in East Africa," said Professor Crispus Kiamba, Kenya's Permanent Secretary for Science and Technology.

"Currently, there is a perception that more students from Kenya seek higher education in Uganda and Tanzania compared to those who come to Kenya from Uganda and Tanzania," said Kiamba. He said the reason given is that the high value of the Kenyan Shilling has priced Kenyan higher education out of the market.

While university education in East Africa has grown rapidly in the past 20 years many challenges have impeded the provision of quality higher education: insufficient human capacity, inadequate funding, and lack of standards and mechanisms to regulate the quality of e-learning and cross-border education.

The planned reforms come at a time when the higher education sectors in the EAC are facing a credibility crisis, with the quality of learning said to be crumbling.

The Tanzania Commission for Universities, the agency charged with regulating university education, and its counterpart in Kenya have both complained to universities about their postgraduate degree numbers and choices.

The IUCEA has issued new quality guidelines to be adopted by higher education regulators in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The guidelines will be used as criteria for institutions achieving university status, ensuring students leave campuses with skills that can help them compete for jobs anywhere in the region and beyond.