Piloting graduate studies in post-conflict countries

The return of peace after civil war has provided an opportunity for three universities in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Madagascar to rebuild agriculture expertise by establishing three postgraduate training programmes.

The University of Antananarivo in the capital of Madagascar, the University of Burundi in Bujumbura and the Catholic University of Bukavu in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC, have acknowledged the need to develop human capacity as part of the rebuilding programme.

At some stage in the past decade, all three countries have been hit by political disturbances or civil unrest that affected investment in higher education. In the case of the eastern DRC, there has been civil war for much of the past two decades.

The 4th Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture – RUFORUM – held from 19-25 July in Mozambique, heard that lack of graduate programmes to support basic and undergraduate as well as research and PhD education, had stymied the countries’ efforts to improve higher education.

They had also lost research and training opportunities as their LMD – licence, master, doctorate – systems were not aligned to the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa’s education system, nor to Europe.

The three universities then sought partnerships to help build postgraduate programmes and align them to the international higher education system.

War damage

A study by RUFORUM and Canada’s International Development Research Centre, or IDRC, in 2010 revealed that civil war had devastated human and infrastructure capacity in several sectors including agricultural education in the Great Lakes region.

Higher education institutions lost staff, had weak administrative systems and laboratories became dilapidated.

The faculty of agriculture at the University of Burundi had 17 scientific staff, only five with PhDs, while at least 80 PhDs and 56 masters lecturers were required. The National Agricultural Research Institute, ISABU, had only two PhD scientists and eight masters-level researchers.

The Catholic University of Bukavu and University of Antananarivo were also found to have very limited human resource capacity – both had only three PhDs and four masters graduates in their faculties of agriculture.

University leaders interviewed in the RUFORUM and IDRC study identified masters and doctoral training in plant breeding and biotechnology, food science, fisheries and aquaculture, and environment and natural resources management, as priority areas for the Great Lakes.

Food quality and food safety, adaptation to climate change, and animal science were selected for Madagascar.

Makerere University and three European institutions were roped in to help develop country-targeted programmes. Funding from the European Union under its Africa, Caribbean and Pacific cooperation initiative saw the project being implemented last year.

Progress of the scheme

Programme Coordinator Dr Mwanjalolo Majaliwa said the project had managed to identify the needs of undergraduate and postgraduate training, and six masters courses were seen as a priority by stakeholders. Potential masters programmes were also identified.

Course lists had been compiled, two courses modules had been developed and another two were being worked on, and two draft curricula had been completed. Designing content for the new courses that were coherent and avoided overlap had been a tricky and lengthy process.

Majaliwa said difficulties in integrating all the recommendations of stakeholders in designing the masters courses were also encountered. There was concern that insufficient physical infrastructure and human capacity might affect implementation of the programmes.

“Expectations were larger than the possibilities of the project for the three targeted universities,” he said. Another hiccup was lack of a legal framework for postgraduate programmes in Burundi.

Majaliwa said that although governments and universities supported the introduction of new and attractive programmes, there was a need to create incentives such as improved salaries to attract and retain qualified staff.

The case of Burundi

Another scheme – Strengthening Capacity for Agricultural Research and Development in Africa, run through RUFORUM – has become a means through which expertise is being developed in Burundi.

Five students from ISABU were the first to be trained in East African universities from 2008-10. Among them was researcher Micheline Inamahoro, who graduated with a masters in plant breeding and seed systems from Makerere University in 2010.

Inamahoro told University World News that although ISABU had tried to run staff development programmes, funding was a problem. The absence of advanced training at the institute led to little capacity to address problems.

“Because there was no funding, and no postgraduate training in agricultural science at the University of Burundi, researchers had to find themselves scholarships for further degree studies, some of them in universities in Belgium or France, and occasionally in the United States or Sweden,” she said.

There were major higher education barriers for researchers – especially for female graduates in a culture that regards family activities as more important for young women than academic success.

Inamahoro won an Intra-ACP mobility scheme scholarship in January this year and started a PhD at Stellenbosch University in South Africa under the Sharing Capacity to Build Capacity for Quality Graduate Training in Agriculture in African Universities, or SHARE.

She called for more scholarships for Francophone countries, especially for those in post-conflict situations that usually miss out on international funding.