Reforms to improve higher education access and quality

Burundi, an East African Community, or EAC, member state and the region’s smallest nation, has over the past few years been toiling to rebuild higher education, which had lagged behind due to a decade long conflict that started in 1993.

As a result, the country – which joined the EAC bloc in 2007 – still has a nascent higher education sector compared to its East African partners Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.

Burundi is keen to catch up in the coming years by setting up a system that will expand enrolments and boost access and the quality of learning. With the EAC pushing to harmonise higher education, Burundi is determined not to be left behind. It supports harmonisation, and has been working towards it.

A Higher Education Act signed in December 2011 is expected to help push through a raft of reforms to regulate the education system.

Sylvie Hatungimana, permanent executive secretary of Burundi’s National Commission for Higher Education, spoke to University World News about the state of higher education and upcoming reforms.

UWN: Burundi has been working to regain what it lost during the war. Please describe the state of higher education and milestones the country has achieved.

Hatungimana: We currently have 25,000 students, a number that has more than doubled over the past five years. Burundi had a single university – the University of Burundi – for years until 1995, when the country started expanding the system to cater for the rising number of students seeking education spaces.

Burundi higher education has become very dynamic over the years. We now have six higher education institutes – public universities. We have the University of Rwanda. We have two institutes, one for military training and another for training teachers. We also have 24 private universities. In 1995, Burundi opened up the university system to private universities.

However, none of these offers PhD programmes. We go for joint partnerships. There are plans to allow the University of Burundi to start offering PhD programmes on its own. We now have rules and structures on how this will be managed.

We are waiting for the government to approve this. We expect to put in a budget for the roll-out of the PhD programme in 2015.

In 2011, a new law was enacted to manage the higher education system – based on the Bologna process.

UWN: How are universities funded in Burundi?

Hatungimana: Public institutions are funded by the government and other external financial partners. They put the finances in one basket. We have been struggling to raise more funds from financiers. The government caters for the big chunk of the funds.

The government also chips in with financing private universities. When you are a student under a regular programme in a private university, the government pays 50% of the fees, as is the case in public universities.

In November, the government exempted private universities from paying taxes on educational materials. But you have to prove that you will use it for education purposes.

UWN: With the projected growth in the higher education system and upcoming reforms, where will money for financing institutions come from in the coming years? Will it be continually government funded or will the University of Burundi be allowed to engage in commercial activities to raise more funds for expansion?

Hatungimana: We are supposed to be in contact with private companies for them to help in taking up some of these costs, since they are the biggest beneficiaries of the skills.

Looking forward, students will have to keep paying their education costs, as is the arrangement today, even if we expect more corporations to join in the coming years.

UWN: What worries you most about Burundi’s higher education system?

Hatungimana: The quality has been going down. We have to make changes, take some time to enhance that quality.

The numbers seeking the higher education places are growing faster than we can take in. We don’t have capacity in terms of teachers and facilities and this will get worse as we roll out a fully-fledged higher education system in the coming years.

This means a majority of students from Burundi are not very competitive outside Burundi, especially in the EAC and global markets. This has to change.

UWN: How will this change?

Hatungimana: We are working on how to enhance evaluation of programmes. There are guidelines and deadlines we have set out to boost the quality of learning.

UWN: How do you see the Burundi higher education system transforming in the coming years?

Hatungimana: While we have quality issues, the opening up of higher education to everyone is expected to change the way things are. We are likely to see competencies coming from universities improving.

We see the numbers doubling in the next few years. We project to hit 50,000 students in universities in 2015.

UWN: What risks do you see ahead for higher education in Burundi?

Hatungimana: We don’t have job opportunities for graduates so the number of unemployed graduates is too high and is likely to get worse.

We are not doing well in developing linkages with industry but recently we signed a memorandum of understanding with the employers’ body so that [more] graduates can be absorbed. This partnership will also help in developing programmes that the job market requires. The average level of unemployment is quite high in Burundi.

UWN: The EAC is quickly becoming a single bloc with a common market, a customs union and a monetary union. What competitive edge does Burundi have?

Hatungimana: We have many young people in universities compared to the total population of the young. When all these graduate, we expect to have a huge block of highly qualified youths.

We also have a language advantage as one of the countries with competencies in the French language. Demand for people with French competencies in the EAC region is growing especially as big economies like France expand into the region.

I am positive that we will catch up with other economies in the region in terms of the strength of the higher education system.