Medical students say their degrees have been downgraded

Angry medical students from the University of Burundi have called for an immediate review of their degree because of quality concerns, including the fact that the qualification is not recognised internationally.

The students, who have been backed by faculty members, say they have been given bachelor degrees upon graduation instead of the doctor of medicine qualifications that were previously issued. The last three cohorts of students who enrolled for medicine at the university have been affected.

“The degree offered to the medical school graduates is not internationally recognised and yet the time spent at university and the credits offered are similar to that of other universities,” said Azarias Nkengurutse, one of the affected students.

He said that the medical students in Burundi, as in other institutions in the region, undergo six years of training – a pre-clinical phase that takes three years and clinical years, also over three years. It was “unfair”, according to him, that students obtained only a bachelor degree “considering the time we spend at universities”.

Medical students also decried the fact that the salaries for medical school graduates are equal to those who work three or four years to earn a bachelor degree in other disciplines while the medical degree is equivalent to a masters degree in other fields of study.

“Considering the time and credits … the doctor of medicine degree is even superior to the masters degrees of some other faculties, in terms of credits,” Nkengurutse said. Students of medicine have to earn a total of 360 credits to graduate.

Graduates also said that they were not allowed to apply for jobs outside Burundi and they struggled to enrol in other universities to continue their studies.

“I applied for a specialisation scholarship in medicine at universities in France. But I received an e-mail notification telling me that I have not finished my studies,” said another graduate.

Medical teaching staff have backed the students’ demands to have their degrees upgraded to be able to work in good conditions upon graduation, work beyond the country’s borders and to enrol in other universities for further studies.

What do the authorities say?

Officials from the University of Burundi and those from the ministry of education have different views on the matter.

According to Sanctus Niragira, the rector of the University of Burundi, the university cannot offer degrees that are different from those planned by the line ministry.

He said that the university was implementing what was planned by Burundi’s Ministry of National Education and Scientific Research and can implement changes only when new guidelines are issued.

On the other hand, François Havyarimana, the minister of national education and scientific research, stressed that the diploma currently awarded to the graduates of the faculty of medicine is equivalent to the degree of doctor of medicine under the old system.

The minister of education pointed out that a technical team will be set up soon “to assess the way degrees being offered to the medical students can be in accordance with the international standards currently in force”.

Calls for an overhaul of HE

The medical degree saga follows shortly after recent calls by experts for an urgent overhaul of the higher learning education system in Burundi if the country is to have well-trained future leaders.

Despite several reforms initiated by the government, little progress has been recorded, particularly due to the failure to improve infrastructure as well as the availing of both human and financial resources.

The challenges have been haunting the system for a long time and need to be addressed urgently, experts said. They responded to the 2022 General Assembly that brought together relevant stakeholders to discuss the state of the education sector.

The meeting, which took place in June 2022, focused on universities that are plagued with problems such as courses that are not keeping up with labour market needs, a lack of teaching materials and dilapidated infrastructure.

Victor Ndabaniwe, president of the coalition of teachers’ unions for national solidarity (COSESONA), said the country risked producing poor graduates who will not help the country to develop.

“There are many challenges which need more joint efforts to avoid an ignorant future society,” he said.

Collaboration and political will needed

“The education sector is a crosscutting sector; it is a shared responsibility, and all stakeholders should work together to ensure strong universities that produce quality students,” Ndabaniwe said, adding that the poor education system could destroy the country.

“In the next 20 years or so, you will have a country of ignorant people ruled by corruption and thievery. This is not the country we want for future generations,” he said. “Improving the quality of education will determine the country’s ability to face future challenges in all areas.”

Professor Libérat Ntibashirakandi, a seasoned scientist who teaches mathematics at the University of Burundi and the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium, said that the education system in Burundi was not improving and called for efforts to increase financial investment. He proposed the establishment of a special common education fund.

“There is also a need for political will to overhaul the education system. We need to invest more in education. Quality education can help our country develop. If not, we will remain behind,” he said.

According to Education Minister Havyarimana, the education sector – and, especially, universities – is facing many challenges that affect the quality of education. He said a lack of funds is hindering efforts to address the challenges.

Havyarimana said that 20% of the state budget is allocated to education, which is not enough in light of the challenges. To revitalise the sector, the budget allocation will have to be increased. The minister called for strong partnerships with other stakeholders, stressing that the government cannot develop the education sector alone.

Experts also called for a plan to reconstruct and rehabilitate infrastructure at schools and universities that are in a poor state.