RWANDA: Government considers merging universities

Rwanda's government is considering merging public universities whose performance is below par, to bring them under a single management and boost their credentials globally. The move is aimed at exploring ways to enhance standards and efficiency in higher education.

The idea was mooted recently at a retreat of senior government officials, policy-makers and educationists, held in the country's western district of Rubavu, which borders the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo.

The National University of Rwanda, the country's premier state-funded university, would be exempted from the proposed reform.

Rwanda, a tiny central African nation, has made a miraculous recovery since emerging from the horrors of the 1994 genocide that claimed at least 800,000 lives and left millions of people displaced. Today, the country is dotted with memorials, but officials say investments in education are key to reconstructing the country's fragile social, economic and political pillars.

According to Professor Geoffrey Rugege, Director of Higher Education Council, merging the institutions would be part of a restructuring process geared towards cost-cutting while retaining efficiency and competitiveness. "Money will be saved in administrative and course designing roles."

Rugege stressed that if merging institutions could create more streamlined and coherent management of higher education. "You may find that the university has one rector, and then deans of faculties can be taken as the heads of various campuses," he explained, adding that this would eventually lead to a reduction in departments.

He argued for a common curriculum for faculties now scattered in various universities. "If all these institutions are brought together, planning will become easier," he said.

There are eight public institutions of higher learning in Rwanda, with a total population of about 25,000 students. Asked if mergers might adversely impact students, Rugege said no: "I don't see students being affected. Instead they will benefit from having a stronger system."

Education Minister Charles Murigande was cautiously optimistic about the merger proposal, but said a study was yet to be commissioned to find out if such a policy was feasible.

Mergers, the minister said, were also been proposed as a way of improving the quality of graduates from Rwandan universities. "The merging of various faculties could strengthen them more than they could have been when they were small and isolated in different universities across the country," he added.

The issue of quality in Rwandan Universities has been a subject of discussion for some time. Employers have said graduates from local institutions are not competitive in the labour market. As a result skilled expats, mainly from Kenya and neighbouring Uganda, are taking up many lucrative job opportunities.

Professor John Severin Mshana, Acting Rector of the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology, said he believed the idea of merging institutions was viable. "I am not worried about it. It will lead to optimal utilisation of resources."

But not all students agree. Innocent Nshuti, a fourth-year student in one of the universities, said: "I am scared it may kill professionalism and competitiveness due to lack of area of specialisation. These institutions have a way of mobilising funds and attracting potential partners. Merging them may discourage such initiatives."

* Charles Kwizera contributed reporting from Kigali, Rwanda.