East African ministers approve HE harmonisation law

The East African Community's five member countries have approved a key bill seeking to harmonise and standardise their university education systems, ending three years of haggling.

Earlier this month education ministers from the five nations – Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda – meeting in the Rwandan capital Kigali, approved the Inter University Council for East Africa (IUCEA) Bill 2012.

It essentially removes the barrier that was blocking the region from rolling out a system that will allow students access to learning and mobility across East Africa.

The countries have been tussling over several provisions in the bill since its first version was released in 2009.

The main bone of contention was a provision giving the regulatory IUCEA the power to accredit all institutions operating in the region and dictate courses and content – a shift that would kill autonomous country regulators currently doing this job in their countries.

Policy-makers and education managers felt the early version of the law gave IUCEA too many powers. The bill, which had earlier been approved by the East African Legislative Assembly, has cut some of these powers, leaving the IUCEA with an oversight role over the country regulators.

Educationists said that with the bill's game-changing provisions, focus would now shift to whether countries will obey the law, which will usher in major changes to the way higher education in the region is run.

"We can only wait and see if countries will stick to the regulations and provisions,” said Dan Ngugi, a lecturer in Nairobi. "There are so many things that appear to have been swept under the carpet. You can only hope the countries' negotiators know the exact implications.”

It is not clear when the bill will be effective, since no date has been given.

Among other things, the bill allows university students to move freely across the bloc's institutions via a credit accumulation and transfer arrangement.

This means, for example, a Kenyan student will be able to enrol at the University of Nairobi but graduate at Uganda’s Makerere University, without having to lose study years or course credits. It is currently impossible to do this.

Educationists see the passing of the bill as a crucial step in boosting learning in the region, as it requires universities to review degree classification criteria to meet regional standards.

The bill aims to achieve a unified university 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 2011, allowing free movement of labour and goods across the region.

The IUCEA, which is pushing for the harmonisation of higher education systems, said the first courses to be standardised would be medicine, agriculture, engineering and basic sciences, whose curricula have already been finalised.

East African countries, which have widely varying higher education systems, had also differed on the duration of study.

For example, it takes five years for a student to finish an engineering degree in Kenya, but three years in Uganda. To pursue a medical degree at a Kenyan university takes five years, a year less than in Tanzania and Uganda.

Under the new bill, countries are to come up with regulations on the duration of study.

Also, universities will be allowed to hire one vice-chancellor to run an institution with branches in all five EAC countries, instead of the current system under which branch campuses are run separately.