Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda strike HE harmonisation fee deal

Students from Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda will in future pay local fees in any of the three East African Community, or EAC, states. A new deal has moved the countries closer to harmonised higher education, which has been elusive for the past five years due to difficulties in agreeing key parameters like fees and credit transfer.

Previously, students studying in another EAC state were regarded as international students and charged in United States dollars.

The deal was signed between the three countries under the auspices of the so-called 'coalition of the willing', an economic partnership that has excluded the other two EAC countries of Burundi and Tanzania.

The coalition emerged early last year, as an initiative to fast-track the integration agenda that was seen to be stalling because of the relatively slow pace of Tanzania in adopting some of the principles. But it has been castigated as having the potential to break up the EAC - one of the most vibrant integration blocs in Africa.

The 'coalition of the willing' has mainly concentrated on major infrastructure projects connecting the three countries including a standard gauge railway, a joint tourist visa, a refinery, a pipeline and energy projects.

The education deal was signed late last month after the coalition's latest meeting in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, on 20 February, and is a rare win in the drive towards harmonised education systems in the East African region.

The three coalition countries have apparently resolved to drive the education harmonisation plan forward, as they have done with integration projects such as the joint tourist visa.

Credit transfer

Higher education harmonisation is aimed, among other things, at establishing a fully-fledged credit transfer system that will allow students to move between universities in different countries without losing credits they have accumulated.

This plan has, however, faced strong headwinds over the past four years due to growing nationalistic biases, with partner states unwilling to let go of educational sovereignty for the sake of a regional system.

Major variations in the quality of learning, curricula and length of degrees exist in the region's higher education systems, highlighting the long road the five countries still have to travel before they can achieve the envisioned integration.

With the exclusion of Tanzania and Burundi from the latest deal on higher education, the dream of achieving harmonisation for the entire bloc seems as far away as ever.

The five countries have, however, already adopted a report that is key to implementing the harmonisation plan - a development that is giving the Inter-University Council for East Africa, or IUCEA, hope for a quick resolution of pending issues.

"Discussions have been very difficult because the concept of harmonisation was not known. Most people across the partner states thought harmonisation meant that we must have the same education system across the entire bloc," said Professor Nkunya Mayunga, executive secretary of the IUCEA.

"Nobody can accept that. Education is a constitutional issue in each country."

While there had been achievements, such as agreeing on the broad framework for harmonisation, much work still needed to be done, said Mayunga.

"As it is, you still cannot transfer credit from one university to another across borders. Universities and countries need to agree on the definition of a credit and what it means. Students can move across the region, but under bilateral arrangements between the governments."

The IUCEA has set 2015 as the deadline for the region to have a working credit transfer system.

Qualifications, skills, accreditation

The council also hopes that by the end of this year, it will have developed a regional qualifications framework. While most courses are similar across countries in terms of names and content, in most cases the qualifications and duration of study vary.

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

At their recent meeting Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda also agreed to identify priority skills needed for joint projects and to develop strategies to address skills gaps through existing institutions of higher education.

The leaders from the three countries - Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda - agreed to allocate budgets for much-needed skills development at two institutions in Kenya and Uganda.

"Partner states will acknowledge Carnegie Mellon University in Kigali as the regional training centre of excellence for ICT," said the presidents in a statement.

The US-based Carnegie Mellon University launched its Rwandan campus mid-2012. It is the first top-ranked US research institution to offer graduate degrees in Africa with an in-country presence and resident faculty.

EAC governments will also have to resolve a stalemate over whether to adopt a single university accreditation system in the bloc, rather than each country having its own system.

The plan was for the IUCEA to be transformed into a regional body with the core function of granting accreditation to universities in the five countries. But this has attracted opposition from all countries.

The presidents also directed their ministers of education to address the issue of standardisation of student cards, which will be used as travel documents. The trio has agreed to stop the passport requirement, and to allow use of identity or student cards to cross borders.

South Sudan

During the Kampala meeting, the heads of state noted the request by conflict-torn South Sudan for support in capacity building in the allocation of projects, particularly railways, and support for Sudanese students studying in the region.

South Sudan has applied to be a member of the EAC bloc but its bid is still under consideration by the five member states after it failed the preliminary test due to weak governance systems after years of political instability.

The application is set to be considered later this year, a development that could further complicate the bid for a harmonised higher education system due to South Sudan's nascent university system, whose growth has been slowed by the decades of war.