Universities struggle to traverse the language landscape

Experts in education have called on all universities in Rwanda to use English only as the language of instruction to help students to be more proficient when they graduate, function optimally in their workplaces and network internationally, if necessary.

The call comes after a recent communiqué from one of Rwanda’s higher learning institutions urging staff to conduct all learning and teaching activities in English fired up the ongoing language in education debate in the country.

In the former Belgian colony, French was used as a medium of instruction until 2008 when the country adopted English for all schools and universities.

But students’ poor command of English after completing school, where the use of Kinyarwanda is widespread, is a challenge for higher education institutions when these learners enrol for their studies. In fact, most institutions continue to struggle with the students’ language transition from school to university as well as the strengthening of the English skills of academic staff.

It was these concerns that surfaced at the Integrated Polytechnics Regional College (IPRC) Karongi, where a recent communiqué announced to all academic staff and students that “English is the only medium of instruction allowed to be used in classes, workshops and any other academic activities”.

This elicited harsh comments from staff and students who questioned the mandatory use of English.

Some argued that there were some teaching and academic staff whose French background could make the sole use of English difficult. Besides, some insiders added, switching between languages could help students to understand their lessons better.

What do lecturers and experts say?

However, experts in the education sector have backed the idea of using English as the only language of instruction, stressing that it is the sure way of making students ready to communicate once they start working.

Four years ago, a 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.

According to Professor Nelson Ijumba, the international research and innovation programme manager at the Africa Hub of Coventry University, it is very important that students understand English.

He insists that teaching and academic staff should strive to deliver courses in English and should undergo training to do so.

“Students are going to be working in an environment where they need to understand English. English is an official language that is widely used. I think it is important for students to understand it well and that is possible only if it is enhanced in universities,” said the don, who is the former deputy vice-chancellor in charge of academic and research at the University of Rwanda.

For Professor Callixte Kabera, the vice-chancellor at East African University and the president of the Association of Private Universities in Rwanda, all higher learning institutions should use English language as a medium of instruction and never mix it with other languages.

“All higher learning institutions, including technical colleges, should use English because, in the end, students are the future workforce and you can’t expect more if they are not equipped with communication skills,” he said.

“Universities should ensure that students acquire skills in the core subject they undertake but also that such subjects are delivered in a language that is commonly used as those students will need to interact with the larger community internationally,” he added.

For Kabera, the use of English in universities as a sole language is appropriate and universities should ensure that teaching and academic staff are empowered to use English through advanced training in English proficiency.

A lecturer from the Integrated Polytechnic Regional College, or IPRC, Karongi, said that the decision was good but that some academic and teaching staff have yet to master English.

“For me, it is very important for students to graduate with the ability to communicate in English as they will be able to transfer and make good use of the acquired technical skills,” he said.

“However, some academic and teaching staff are not yet ready to use English fully and end up mixing it with other languages, most Kinyarwanda and French. You also find some students who are not able to understand English well depending on their background,” he added.

He stressed that there is a need for all actors to put in more effort and ensure that needed training is provided for teaching and academic staff to master English.

This is happening at some institutions, but is an ongoing process.

What are universities doing?

At the University of Rwanda, the biggest higher learning institution in Rwanda with six colleges, a centre for language enhancement was set up to improve the English proficiency of students as well as academic and administrative staff.

According to Dr Anne Marie Kagwesage, the director of the centre, teaching and administrative staff are required to sit for an English test, and further study is required for those who fail to achieve more than 70%.

She says that the university carries out needs assessments to identify gaps in the language proficiency levels of beneficiaries before putting them into classes for further training.

For students, there is a mandatory English test that they undertake before they start their studies. Those who fail undertake additional English classes.

Staff must do the compulsory standardised English language test, or SELT, and the process has been ongoing.

Kagwesage said that, together with partners such as the British Council, the University of Rwanda has managed to set up its own tests. Teaching materials were also revised in collaboration with experts from the university and international collaborators from the United Kingdom and the United States.

Rwanda is a member of the Commonwealth, and, in June, hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting – the first Commonwealth summit held in a country that is not a former British colony or dominion or the United Kingdom, itself. Its membership gives access to support for strengthening the use of English.

“The training we have managed to do so far [has been] for academics and postgraduate students, especially in academic writing and writing for publication,” she said.

She said teaching materials have been uploaded online for learning and support purposes.

“For academics, we sent out calls for the training and they register and get certified after successfully completing the training. For students, we still have mandatory English modules, not only for first-years but up to year three,” she said.

Kagwesage said that the university considers having an exit test and a requisite score for graduation, which all the graduates should attain.

For other higher learning institutions such as Institut Catholique de Kabgayi (ICK) or Catholic Institute of Kabgayi, efforts to implement the cabinet resolution has helped them strengthen their English centre that was set up in 2009.

According to Dr Balthazar Ntivuguruzwa, the vice-chancellor of ICK, the mandatory use of the English language is important, yet it comes with challenges as well as benefits. Therefore, at the institution they do what is necessary to overcome the challenges.

A challenge is the poor level of English of some students coming from secondary schools, where there is limited use of English because Kinyarwanda is the most dominant language in daily and spontaneous communication. The institution has also set up a language support centre.

“We have managed to equip our centre with books, computers, software and other necessary tools to enable students and staff to acquire English skills,” Ntivuguruzwa said, stressing that English is one of the most useful languages globally.

He added that they have also set up English clubs at which students meet and debate. The university also encourages students and academic staff to use English both in classes and outside whenever they seek services.

“Overall, we have a specific module for students in which English is taught as a course and we ensure that students sit regular tests and have a certificate upon graduation,” he added.