Council rooting for free movement as part of harmonising

Universities from the East African Community, guided by the Inter-University Council for East Africa (IUCEA), could soon enjoy a harmonised higher education system with free movement of students and academic staff, and a harmonised tuition fee structure, among other advantages.

It is believed that a harmonised regional higher education (HE) system will contribute to the East African Community’s integration, sustained growth of higher learning and a bond between academia and industries that would eventually contribute to regional development.

Such are the priorities of Professor Callixte Kabera, the newly elected chairperson of IUCEA for the next two years. As the chairperson, his responsibilities include overseeing all operations and activities of the IUCEA to ensure the effective execution of its mandate. The executive committee of the IUCEA, as the highest policy-making organ, is responsible for the development and coordination of higher education and research in the region. So, the priorities are pushing for the effective implementation of the activities.

Cabera, a seasoned don who is also the president of Rwanda’s Private Universities’ Association and vice-chancellor of the East African University, spoke to University World News on how he intends to work with the executive committee to promote such a system.

UWN: What will be your priorities during your two-year tenure as the chairperson?

CK: The priority is operationalising the East African common higher education area whereby the patterns of harmonisation and occupational standards, school fee structures, staff and student mobility will be addressed to contribute to the region’s integration agenda.

The focus will be mainly on the sustainable growth of higher learning institutions and on linking academia, industries and all productive sectors in the region. This would be done through various programmes such as institutional capacity strengthening and human capital development.

UWN: How has the IUCEA been helpful in promoting quality higher learning?

CK: Over the years, it has been active in improving the quality, relevance and responsiveness of higher education to the regional needs while ensuring that quality education is available to all citizens of the East African Community.

Handbooks for quality assurance roadmaps have been designed and are implemented in higher education. We have also worked on capacity building to improve governance and management of higher learning institutions, conducted research and innovation in different disciplines and worked on supervising postgraduate students. Through the IUCEA, different scholarship schemes and centres of excellence were established.

UWN: There have been problems with the validity of degrees obtained from unaccredited universities. How does the council ensure that only accredited universities function?

CK: Issues could be addressed through the collaboration of higher education councils of member states and universities. Information is shared on the list of accredited institutions. The council will keep encouraging sharing and updating information and improving collaboration through the improvement of information management and digital infrastructure, collaboration among partner states, and internal capacity improvements.

UWN: The issue of harmonised curricula in the region has been pending for years. How far is the process?

CK: The IUCEA is addressing the harmonisation issue in its strategic plan by transforming the East African Community into a common higher education area.

So far, the council has developed key regional policies and tools for quality assurance, such as subject benchmarking for business and related studies, computer sciences and information technology, medicine and dentistry, agriculture, engineering, education and mathematics, at undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

The process will continue for other sectors to transform HE into knowledge-based and industrialised economies with the support of partner states and the private sector.

UWN: How was the harmonisation process planned and where will you start from?

CK: Based on what has been achieved in terms of the benchmarks I mentioned, the plan is to continue to benchmark other sectors of education and develop postgraduate programmes and research for masters and PhD programmes as well as creating and developing more centres of excellence based on the needs of the region. This is in line with the 2021-26 strategic plan of the IUCEA.

UWN: How does the IUCEA ensure that universities offer the relevant courses needed in the labour market?

CK: It does so by establishing quality assurance mechanisms. We work on the harmonisation of entry standards in partnership with the partner states’ accreditation councils, examination boards and relevant university boards. We also develop criteria to assess standards to ensure quality teaching and research.

We have been working on endorsing programmes by accrediting courses offered in distance learning through bodies in partner states. Through the council, we also promote curriculum review to equip graduates with market-relevant skills and knowledge. We encourage the exchange of students and staff between member universities as well as identify training needs or academic programmes, curriculum reform, teaching methods and management.

UWN: How often do you discuss programme review at council level?

CK: We do not have a set meeting schedule, but the IUCEA members meet as often and whenever the needs arise based on research findings or requests from member institutions.

UWN: How possible is sharing resources among member universities, including human and infrastructure resources?

CK: Sharing human resources in knowledge and experience through exchange, staff and student mobility is currently encouraged among member institutions. However, sharing infrastructure resources is still lagging. It needs to be boosted, considering the level of technological development.

UWN: How are member universities working on a regional framework for sustainable development goals (SDGs) as universities must play a role either in the domestication of some goals or their implementation?

CK: Universities, together with the IUCEA, usually explore all factors that may influence policies and development of HE such as the UN’s SDGs, in particular, SDG 4 which advocates for inclusive and equitable quality education and promotion of lifelong learning opportunities for all, and the linkage between basic education and [technical and] vocational education and training.

Spearheaded by the IUCEA, the development universities are informed by existing regional and global perspectives and regional policies. The IUCEA strategic plan and member universities are premised on the fact that educated people are key to effective and efficient production, knowledge transfer, technological adaptation, and innovation. We do believe that universities will continue to play their role in domesticating and implementing SDGs as part of their assigned mandate.

UWN: How do governments facilitate the functioning of universities, especially private ones? Are there tangible incentives given to universities?

CK: Governments facilitate the functioning of universities, both private and public. Tangible incentives are given, depending on policies and guidelines available in partner states. We can cite support received like economic relief funds accorded to higher learning institutions in Rwanda during the COVID-19 pandemic, scholarships or bursary schemes offered in private institutions in some member institutions in East African Community states, among other incentives.

UWN: As a seasoned educator, where do you see the future of higher education?

CK: The sector is a cornerstone for regional integration and socio-economic transformation. The future of higher education is bright but needs revitalisation of teaching towards quality and relevance, conducive education environment, ICT for expanded access, gender parity and equity, the linkage between education, employment and job creation, as well as expanded research and innovation to nurture multilevel sustainable development.