A new university, new international leader, new future

It is powerfully symbolic that Rwanda’s new public university is leading debates during the 20th anniversary commemorations of the 1994 genocide that tore the country apart – a story of new beginnings, of ways to overcome the past. It is unusual that the university is led by an Irishman and former vice-chancellor in Australia and New Zealand – though also appropriate, as this rapidly developing country forges a place for itself in the world.

The development of higher education in Rwanda post-1994 was the topic of a presentation by Emeritus Professor James McWha during the triennial conference of the International Association of University Presidents, or IAUP, held in Japan from 11-14 June.

The founding vice-chancellor of the University of Rwanda talked about events in the country over the last half-century, and the terrible slaughter of 20 years ago, during which Rwanda descended into chaos.

“Many countries would find themselves unable to recover from that,” McWha told University World News in an interview ahead of the IAUP conference. “What happened in Rwanda was a very strong government came in, ensuring the growth of institutions – social institutions of all sorts within the country. It has been very successful.”

Part of this success has been the development of education. “Pretty much every child in Rwanda gets primary school education now, the majority gets secondary education and we’re seeing university education beginning to blossom.

“The University of Rwanda, in its appearance and its development, is part of that whole scene. The government very strongly believes, and they’re absolutely right, that if you want a peaceful and harmonious developing society, education is a vital part of that,” said McWha.

“The university developed out of enthusiasm to ensure that education is available to everyone in Rwanda and that there are opportunities for people to use their abilities. It is tremendous to see the way in which the government has promoted educational opportunity.”

A few years ago, when checking progress against the national plan, the government realised that tertiary education development was lagging. An international review was conducted, and it recommended that Rwanda’s small public degree-awarding institutions be merged to create one substantial new university.

The new university

The University of Rwanda came into being in late 2013, with James McWha arriving last November. It has just over 30,000 students, the vast majority of them undergraduates, around 1,400 academic staff and an equal number of support staff.

The university brought together seven previous institutions. The largest was the National University of Rwanda, south of the capital Kigali, and there were institutes in fields such as education, health, banking, science and agriculture as well as a polytechnic.

“What we’ve done with the new university is create six colleges, divided up in a fairly conventional way – science and technology, education, arts and social sciences, agriculture and animal medicine, business and economics, health and medical sciences.” Each college has a principal and schools within them, and some deans are currently being appointed.

The idea was to set up the university in line with international best practice. While its constituent institutions were part of the Ministry of Education, the new university has its own board – chaired by a Canadian, Professor Paul Davenport – autonomy and academic freedom.

“The idea is to create a university that is able to serve the needs of Rwanda – to expand research activities, ensure that it delivers outcomes for the people of Rwanda and the region we live in, and ultimately to be acknowledged as one of the leading universities in Africa.”


But who is James McWha and how did this Irishman end up in Rwanda?

McWha is a botanist who graduated with a BSc and BAgr from Queen's University Belfast followed by a PhD from Glasgow University in 1973. After that he got a lecturing job at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, where he later became a head of department.

He returned to Northern Ireland in 1985 to become professor and head of agricultural botany at Queen's University Belfast, and deputy chief scientific officer in the Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture.

In 1989 McWha became a director in the New Zealand Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, and in 1992 founding head of the Horticulture and Food Research Institute of New Zealand Ltd. He was appointed vice-chancellor of Massey University in New Zealand in 1996, and of the University of Adelaide in Australia in 2002.

In 2003 McWha was awarded an Australian Centenary Medal for his services to education, which also saw him made an honorary Officer of the Order of Australia in 2011. The next year he retired from Adelaide, after two terms.

“Things were quiet for a change,” he recalled, but not for long. McWha is “heavily involved” with the Association of Commonwealth Universities, or ACU, and has been on its council and executive committee for a long time. Rwanda became a member of the Commonwealth in 2009, and the ACU was keen to assist the new member with university education.

“I happened to be at a meeting in Brunei and was asked if I would have a look at what was happening in Rwanda. I said yes, thinking that it was a case of paying a visit for a few days or a couple of weeks even. It turned out it was a rather more complex plan they had in mind, and before I knew it I was being asked if I would spend some time here.

“If you spend your life saying that university education is vitally important, and then somebody asks you to do something to help it in a country like Rwanda, it’s very hard to say no,” he laughed.

But seriously: “I thought it was a project that was enormously far sighted and one that is particularly worthwhile, and I couldn’t resist the temptation.”

Strategic thrusts

The new university, said McWha, is deploying three main strategies around access, research and community engagement.

“One of our goals is to ensure access to university for all Rwandans with ability,” he said. The government sponsors around half of the students, based on ability and need.

“Some struggle in terms of finding the money to move to wherever the university campus is. The great advantage we have as a large, distributed university – we are multi-campus as well as multidisciplinary – is that we have campuses around the country.

“Students are able to access our campuses fairly easily, and we’re also developing open and distance learning for people who may have missed out the first time around in terms of education and who find access through distance learning to be much easier.”

A second goal is to achieve international best practice in both teaching and research, which is currently weak. With a very low proportion of academic staff with PhDs – around 20% – an important objective is to increase that proportion substantially in order to produce quality research that is of use to the region and is internationally recognised.

“Research is a capacity we’re building strongly. We’ve got a lot of overseas governments and foundations assisting us,” said McWha.

One Swedish government programme, for example, has some 60 of the university’s academics currently in Sweden studying for PhDs and learning how to do research. “That’s a rolling programme, with a large number of people sponsored by the Swedish government.”

There is also significant support from American foundations. “We’re trying to build those programmes so it’s not a case of staff disappearing for four years and then coming back and by that time being quite disconnected from the issues that are relevant to Rwanda.

“We’re trying to create sandwich programmes where people work both in the other country and here in Rwanda. The problems that they’re working on will be relevant to society here.”

Also, said McWha: “We’re looking for features that are unique to Rwanda that would allow us to play a part in cooperative projects, and we’re very keen to build cooperation with universities around the world. We think if we use our particular, unique characteristics as a country it will allow us to play a significant role in the world.”

The third strand is service to the community. The university is building linkages with all local institutions, from government to the law to health sectors to industry and communities, “so that at the very least we’re able to understand their needs".

“To that end, we’re just setting about creating a new strategic plan for the university, and that will involve discussions with all of these groups until we understand each other much better.

“If we can pin together those three strands, we think we will have a good quality university.”

One major challenge the new university faces is expectations, said McWha. “We are the only public university, which creates an enormous expectation that somehow we will be like Cape Town or one of the other great universities. We will be, but it will take a bit of time.”

Another is dramatically upgrading staff qualifications and a third is improving facilities. “We’ve got some nice new facilities but a lot of them are quite old and run down. So we are trying to upgrade the facilities we have to meet modern day needs and expectations.”

Coming to terms with genocide

Rwanda is destined to be remembered for the genocide that took place for 100 days from 7 April 1994, in which between 500,000 and one million mainly Tutsi people were killed by Hutus – as much as one in five Rwandans and 70% of the Tutsi people living in the country.

The genocide followed the Rwandan Civil War, a conflict that began in 1990 between the Hutu-led government and Rwandan Patriotic Front, a rebel group largely comprised of Tutsi refugees whose families had fled following earlier Hutu violence. A power-sharing accord was reached in 1993, but was opposed by Rwanda’s conservative political elite, the Akazu.

On 6 April 1994 an airplane carrying Rwanda’s Hutu leader Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundi’s president Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down on descent into Kigali, killing all on board. The slaughter of Tutsis and moderate Hutus began the next day, planned by the Akazu and perpetrated by members of the army, police, militias and the Hutu population.

“One of the interesting things in Rwanda is that rather than pretend all these terrible things didn’t happen, people have actually taken responsibility and said, ‘We did it’. They hold themselves accountable and try to identify what the issues are and ensure these kinds of things never happen again. I think it’s an enormously commendable approach,” said McWha.

Rwanda is currently holding a 100-day commemoration including series of events. All of the university’s campuses have had activities where the staff and students have got together and held discussion groups.

“There has been a rolling series of conferences, many international and others local, where the debate has been around how to build a peaceful and harmonious society, one that is successful and cooperative – how do you actually go about that?”

On the day we talked, there was an international conference on women’s participation in peace-building in the Great Lakes region.

“This is one of the roles that a university has to play – a public university in particular. We have to be at the forefront of exploring issues and trying to create an awareness in government and the community at large as to what should be done and what can best be done to build a peaceful Rwanda,” McWha concluded.