East Africa HE boss warns of more harmonisation delays

East African Community countries risk not meeting their goal of harmonising education systems any time soon due to deep disparities in curricula, varying quality of learning, and budget cuts, the head of the regional higher education council has warned.

Speaking in Tanzania’s largest city Dar es Salaam, Professor Mayunga Nkunya, executive secretary of the Inter-University Council for East Africa, or IUCEA – the regional higher education body driving harmonisation – recently also expressed worry over resistance from some countries.

The biggest concerns for countries in the East African Community, or EAC, have been wide disparities in curricula, differing lengths of degrees, and difficulties in implementing credit accumulation and transfer across universities in the region, he told reporters.

The transferability of credits would allow free mobility of students between universities and countries – meaning, for example, that a student could study for two years at the University of Dar es Salaam and be able to complete the degree at the University of Nairobi.

“As it is, the systems need to be looked at afresh, and evaluated and validated before they can be harmonised – and that might take some time,” said Nkunya.

“While most of the courses are similar across countries in terms of names and content, in most cases the qualifications considered and duration of study vary,” he said.

This meant that the IUCEA needed to convince countries to change their current systems to support harmonisation. The agency is banking on the goodwill of the five member states – Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda – which have already adopted a crucial report on implementing the harmonisation plan.

Harmonisation budget slashed

But in May this year EAC countries slashed the budget for harmonising education systems for the current fiscal year, further slowing a process that has nearly flopped due to financial constraints.

Budgetary estimates produced by the EAC secretariat, the executive arm of the trade bloc, for the financial year tjat began in July showed that IUCEA would receive US$9.6 million – just down from the current year’s US$10 million.

Educationists and managers at IUCEA had hoped that the body would get a big financial boost to unlock the harmonisation process, which has also been hampered by conflicting nationalist interests among the five EAC countries.

IUCEA’s funding crisis is expected to worsen because partner states have been slow to contribute their share of money to the agency. At least 40% of the US$4 million that member states were supposed to contribute to IUCEA in the past fiscal year is yet to come through: US$1.7 million.

Since 2011 the regional bloc has considered harmonising systems in the fields of education, science and technology, and culture, sports and youth affairs – but this dream is being hampered across the board by structural and financial constraints.

Inter-University Council for East Africa

The governments of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda fostered the establishment of the present-day IUCEA in 1980, with the objectives of facilitating contact between universities in 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.

Last year, the EAC approved the key Inter University Council for East Africa (IUCEA) Bill 2012, seeking to harmonise and standardise university systems.

EAC countries had already set in motion an economic integration process that saw them sign a Common Market Protocol in July 2011, allowing free movement of labour and goods across the region.

But critics are concerned that harmonised higher education systems could increase 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 other five member countries.