Rebuilding higher education after 12 years of civil war

Burundi is working hard to recoup what it lost through a 12-year civil war, by rebuilding higher education. The small, crowded country is implementing a new higher education law and is planning to set up a science fund early next year.

“It is a process we are working on and we are making progress,” Minister for Higher Education and Scientific Research Julien Nimubona told University World News during the Innovation Africa summit in held in Cape Town from 5-7 October.

“The ambition is to build a strong culture of research that responds to the country’s development needs,” said Nimubona.

Burundi was torn apart by a civil war marked by ethnic violence, from 1993-2005. The war that pitted Hutus against Tutsis led to academics and researchers fleeing the country. Research all but ceased as people sought to survive the war.

The country lost bilateral support from former colonial ruler Belgium, international agencies, and countries such as the United States.

The Higher Education Act, signed in December last year, is meant to regulate and breathe life into a declining education system.

The law outlines the functioning of public and private universities, the creation and approval of courses, accreditation of training programmes and the requirements of higher education institutions such as libraries and laboratories.

The entry level into higher education in the country, where numerous private institutions chaotically ran their own system unsupervised, has been standardised.

The law also brought sanity to higher education by emphasising quality assurance, the establishment of scientific centres, support for private higher education, sanctions and penalties against wayward institutions, and high-level qualifications for academics.

It has allowed the setting up of a new higher education commission that vets quality and has to date accredited 23 private institutions. Stipulations have also been set on fees to be paid by students.

“The education provided by most private institutions was of low quality. Fly-by-night colleges were set up by individuals who capitalised on the need for training institutions as the conflict subsided, but they did not measure up,” said Nimubona.

“People started to build institutions not to educate people, but simply to make money. They had no lecturers, no laboratories. We had to change that. The biggest change we had to bring was quality.”

Burundi has fewer graduates as a percentage of its 10 million people than any other country in Africa. Higher education is mostly provided by the University of Burundi, located in the capital Bujumbura. It enrols slightly more than 3,000 students.

Rebuilding research

The new law also enabled the government to relaunch research in Burundi.

There were many professors who cheated death by fleeing the political crisis, and many academics left to study abroad and never returned.

The minister said researchers were being encouraged to teach full-time or part-time, and there had been some success in repatriating academics from Rwanda, Uganda and America.

“They are progressively returning, and we hope as things slowly improve, the situation will be better with time,” he says.

A directorate of science, technology and research led by Tatien Masharabu has been established to plan and implement national policy on science and research. Burundi is also benefiting from collaborations with universities in West Africa.

“We are keen to retain and train more academics at doctorate level. We are allowing lecturers studying for their doctorates in Burundi not to pay taxes, to cushion their fees burden,” the minister said.

Apart from wooing back academics with promises of improved conditions, Burundi plans to launch a science fund in early 2013. Nimubona said the fund would sponsor researchers as well as helping them get published in international journals.

It is not yet clear how much money the fund will receive from the national budget, the minister said, but some of it would come from student fees. He is also seeking support for the fund from the African Development Bank, the European Union, the World Bank and UNESCO.

Nimubona said investing in science was an important element in rebuilding one of the world’s poorest countries. Burundi has a gross domestic product of just US$2.33 billion, according to the World Bank.