Academic staff on a journey towards English proficiency

Two years ago, a Rwandan cabinet meeting resolved that teaching staff and students at universities should undergo compulsory standardised English language tests (SELT) in a bid to improve English proficiency. This resolution in August 2018 followed complaints from the public that universities were not performing well in English, a medium of instruction in the country.

Rwanda adopted English as a language of instruction in universities in 2008 after switching from the French that had been used for decades before.

The transition has not been smooth, so University World News investigated what universities are doing to ensure that teaching and other staff members are supported in improving their proficiency in English.

According to Dr Anne Marie Kagwesage, director of the Centre for Language Enhancement at the University of Rwanda, the institution is working hard to tackle the issue. She points out that teaching and administrative staff are required to sit for an English test, and further study is required for those who fail to get more than 70%.

Gaps identified

Through the Centre for Language Enhancement, the university then does a needs assessment analysis to group staff members, based on their proficiency levels.

“We planned to support the teaching and administrative staff, and we cannot support them without knowing their needs,” Kagwesage told University World News. Training goals vary from being able to write good academic papers to presentation at conferences, to everyday communication. After analysing these needs, Kagwesage said staff members were given a voluntary test in February to identify gaps.

As part of this process, the university has also standardised its own English tests. This was done in partnership with institutions such as the British Council, and tests and teaching materials were revised by language experts from both the university and international collaborators, mainly from the UK and the US.

Staff training was interrupted by COVID-19 because it requires the physical presence of people speaking to, listening to and interacting with one another, but will be resumed when possible.

“We have also planned training for our test team. Once we get all the data from the reviewers and from the piloting stage, we are going to produce a final standardised English language test for the University of Rwanda,” Kagwesage said.

After that, there will be a mandatory test for all staff members. The results of this test, she said, would give the university an indication of what needs to be done to achieve the required levels of proficiency in English. The standard expected from teaching staff will differ from what is expected from administrative staff.

The university will then start supporting staff members accordingly. Those already at the required level will be exempted, and those who need additional training will be helped to reach that level.

English proficiency is a journey

Proficiency in English is still a problem among university teaching staff members, and this affects students’ mastery of the language, says lecturer and PhD candidate Valens Safari, who lectures at Mount Kenya University in Rwanda and who is also a visiting lecturer at various other universities.

Some of the teaching staff members have a French language background and have resisted change, Safari said. This, in turn, affects teaching, as English is not often used in class and students are not encouraged to use it.

He feels that implementation requires enforcement, and that lecturers who repeatedly fail English tests should be disqualified from teaching at the university.

For Dr Callixte Kabera, vice-chancellor of Rwanda’s University of Tourism, Technology and Business Studies, promoting English proficiency is a journey the universities have started on with the hope that things will improve in the future.

“We have set standardised English language tests [SELT] that the teaching staff does, and we ensure that they all sit for it. We also support the staff and provide training in standardised English. Students also train in SELT, and none are allowed to graduate before they get a certificate of English mastery,” said Kabera who doubles as the president of the country’s private universities’ association.

According to Dr Rose Mukankomeje, the executive director of Rwanda’s Higher Education Council, teaching staff at tertiary level are required to sit for standardised tests at least twice annually for a period of two years in order to assess their levels of proficiency against a requisite level.

Such tests should be taken seriously, she says. Those who pass are given certificates, and those who fail should be given a chance to study and redo the exams until they pass. “How will lecturers teach if they don't not know English?” she asks.

Furthermore, new students at tertiary level should present a requisite SELT score as a condition for entry, and final-year students an appropriate requisite score as a condition for graduation.

In June, the council wrote to the heads of all Rwandan universities and higher learning institutions and asked them to submit a progress report on the implementation of the cabinet paper on the standardised levels of English proficiency for lecturers and students.