Heads of state declare common higher education area

Heads of East African states declared the transformation of the East African Community, or EAC, into a Common Higher Education Area, which will facilitate the recognition of academic certificates and the transfer of credits from higher education institutions across the region, at their summit on 20 May in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

The new harmonised system, involving the five East African countries of Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi (South Sudan is expected to join shortly), has been about 10 years in the making and sets a precedent for regional harmonisation of higher education on the continent. It is expected to significantly enhance students’ and academics’ mobility across the partner states.

According to the executive secretary of the Inter-University Council for East Africa, or IUCEA, Professor Alexandre Lyambabaje, the standardised credit transfer system among education institutions will allow students to complete parts of their degree in another country, thus providing a platform for free movement of labour and students across the region.

University students in the region will be able to join any of the more than 110 universities of their choice in the EAC partner states at undergraduate or postgraduate levels, giving them greater exposure to regional and possibly international interaction, and preparing them for a regionally integrated EAC with the potential to impact on many aspects of life, both economically and socially.

“Under the common higher education area, partner states will recognise academic certificates from universities and other higher learning institutions in the region, and students will be able to transfer credits across universities within the countries,” Lyambabaje told University World News.

He said it will also be possible under the new plan, for instance, to enrol for a bachelor degree at the University of Nairobi and graduate at Makerere University without being asked to sit for another examination set in the second country.

EAC qualification seal

Under the new system, university students’ academic qualification certificates will have to bear an EAC qualification seal and their names will need to be registered in the regional qualification register for them to qualify for recognition in all the five partner states.

Although higher education institutions are not being forced to comply, they will need to be accredited based on the EAC quality assurance system.

The instruments facilitating the implementation of a Common Higher Education Area were developed by the IUCEA in collaboration with the national commissions and councils for university/higher education by involving other key stakeholders in higher education in the region.

The harmonised system will be guided by a harmonised education framework developed by the IUCEA.

The IUCEA will be responsible for coordinating the operationalisation of the Common Higher Education Area at the regional level under the oversight of the EAC Council of Ministers which will also provide oversight at the highest political levels.

The national councils or commissions for higher or university education have the responsibility of following up the implementation and adoption of the harmonised system by the higher education institutions in their respective countries.

The higher learning institutions are responsible for adopting and adapting all policies and guidelines that will allow them to be part of the common area.

Nationalistic interests

Former IUCEA executive secretary Mayunga Nkunya, who initiated the process of harmonising the higher education system, and retired in 2015, told University World News the main challenges of harmonisation of the education systems were the controversies arising from nationalistic interests within partner states and the unwillingness of partner countries to adjust their education systems, as education is regarded as a “political” issue in many African countries.

“There are also huge variations in quality and curricula, length of time to take degrees and inadequate financing of universities, which were hard to harmonise. There is still a long way to go,” said Nkunya.

“Most degree courses are similar across the region but the course content, qualifications considered and the duration of the course are different in almost all the universities. We therefore had to come up with a different arrangement known as the mutual recognition of education systems in the region where partner states recognise each other’s education system.”

In Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, higher education systems were similar, especially at the regulatory level, but this was not the case for Burundi and Rwanda where different systems at higher levels introduced a “big challenge”, said Nkunya.

Interviewed last year, Sarah Ruto, director of People’s Action for Learning Network, an education NGO in Nairobi, said that harmonisation at a headline level which has been achieved by the partner countries is easier than harmonisation of critical issues such as the curriculum, examination systems, language variations, human resources, and inequity between the institutions, and between private and public universities.

Student and labour mobility

Samuel Nyandemo, an economics lecturer at the University of Nairobi, said a common higher education area in the region will promote student and labour mobility, the ultimate goal of the EAC under the Common Market Protocol.

“We expect to see more inter-institutional cooperation, cooperation in training systems and research,” said Nyandemo.

However, he said that the strength of regional partnerships in education lies in enabling universities to pool resources and expertise. It was critical to invest more in high-quality science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, he said.

The IUCEA has been developing the systems for harmonising higher education in the region for the past 10 years in order to transform the region into an East African Common Higher Education Area.

The process initially focused on the development of a regional quality assurance system for higher education that was aimed at harmonising the national systems into a common regional framework.

With the adoption in 2010 of the EAC Common Market Protocol which sought free movement of students, labour and capital in the region, the scope of the EAC was broadened and a common higher education area was identified as a means to facilitate the mutual recognition of higher education and training systems in the region.

Proposals for the creation of an African Higher Education Area have recently been forthcoming and it is likely that with the precedent set by the EAC, other African countries may follow.