New VC determined to improve the quality of TVET graduates

Eight months ago, Dr Sylvie Mucyo became the first woman to lead the biggest and only public polytechnic institution, Rwanda Polytechnic (RP), that brings together eight Integrated Regional Polytechnics Colleges (IPRCs). Created six years ago, RP was mandated to offer technical and vocational education and training (TVET) across the country, producing entrepreneurial and highly qualified employable graduates.

Mucyo has approximately eight years experience in academic management. In an interview with University World News, she talks about RP, what has been done and what tasks are ahead of her to move the institution forward.

UWN: As an introduction, who is Dr Sylvie Mucyo?

SM: I am the vice-chancellor of Rwanda Polytechnic. Before that I served as the deputy vice-chancellor in charge of training, institutional development, and research at RP.

I have a PhD in applied environmental sciences from Abertay University in Dundee, Scotland. My background is in biology with expertise in solid waste management.

I have worked as a lecturer at the University of Rwanda’s College of Agriculture, and as the deputy coordinator of the University of Rwanda and Sweden’s research cooperation. I have been in academia since 2008, having started as a tutorial assistant. After my studies, I returned to Rwanda, and I have been part of the management of the college. So, I have been in academic leadership and administration for more than 10 years.

UWN: It’s been seven months since you were appointed vice-chancellor. What has your experience been like? What have you done so far and what are your priorities?

SM: It has been an exciting experience. We can see the potential of the RP in the development of the country. The excitement is also visible among students. From conversations you realise they are proud to be here, that they joined by choice.

So, my priority is to ensure their learning experience is as exciting as possible. We still have a lot to do as an institution. That means the quality of education, of course, that’s priority number one. That requires ensuring a quality curriculum, and qualified trainers.

The second priority is soft skills: communication skills, critical thinking skills, leadership skills, and ethics. This is another area where we need to put so much emphasis and so much effort on. So, there are so many programmes, so many projects we are bringing in to achieve this. On the structural changes, we have people in charge of that as well.

Another thing is research and innovation. We are also putting much effort into this with the cooperation of the private sector. There are some issues in the community that maybe our staff may work on but again, we want to work with companies that may have challenges and need solutions. We have been working on this by encouraging researchers to write proposals regarding that and we are slowly winning some of them over.

Research and innovation are mainly solution-oriented. So, here it’s about staff being involved. But also, for students, how are we supporting them? They may come up with ideas and they want to pursue those ideas so what we do as RP is we provide space for them to develop those ideas. In some cases, we give them small grants worth RWF2 million (US$1,861) to cover the cost of materials.

But, we are thinking of ways to strengthen that system. We have an incubation manual guide that we have prepared but we link with other players and partners in those fields of incubation support, business development, entrepreneurship, and so on. One such project is Field Future, a USAID project which is also offering support in that regard.

We also partner with the ministry of youth on some projects. So, what we want is to provide space for the students to try out ideas.

We want each college to have an incubation space, or I don’t want to call it an innovation hub but it’s a space where they can create, exchange, and try out their innovative ideas and so on. This is something we want to do and later, after developing those capabilities, we want to be able to support these students financially to develop those ideas.

This is an established practice at universities You hear about spin-off companies. This is what we are looking at but after developing that capacity as well to do that.

UWN: In the past TVETs were perceived as institutions for academically weak students. How are you trying to position RP as the first choice for secondary students?

SM: Actually, they know it. They know that it’s a destination because there is a direct link. Because they are coming from technical schools and they are going to a technical institution, it is a direct move. But we want bright students to understand that technical school is not for academic failures.

I said that the students are excited to join because they can also see that they get jobs immediately after studying. The employment rate of our graduates is higher than any other university graduates. So, it encourages them.

Out of over 10,000 applications we receive each year we can enrol not more than 4,000 students and the rest join private polytechnics. Yes, there is still a long way to go looking at the target the nation has which is that of all high school leavers, 60% are from TVET.

But as an institution we make sure that enrolled students have the desire to learn, they have hope for a better future after graduation. But this comes with a duty to strive to give them a whole package that includes both soft and technical skills.

UWN: You talk of all IPRCs. Are they public, and what is their focus? How do you select those?

SM: We don’t select. I think it depends on how they evolved from the beginning. Over 90% are engineering programmes. And you could see some specific programmes, depending on their location.

They are called regional colleges for a reason. For example, IPRC Musanze has hospitality because it is a tourist area, and students can choose where to do industrial training. And then you have IPRC Kitabi which is near a forest area where you have companies in the forest industry and tourism. It focuses on tourism and forestry and wood technology.

And IPRC Karongi also has hospitality and horticulture and wood technology. So, sometimes it depends on the region.

But there are others that cut across, like civil engineering. You will find this programme in almost all colleges. So, that’s the basis of their establishment but it also takes into consideration the available resources, including human resources, equipment, and industry proximity.

UWN: Almost all IPRCs offer diplomas upon graduation and yet some other institutions like colleges of sciences and technology offer bachelor’s degrees. How far are plans to introduce bachelor’s degrees in IPRCs?

SM: We want to introduce the Bachelor of Technology. We want to start with a few programmes after an assessment of industry needs. This was demand-driven. Construction and automobile industries are top areas because of extra technical skills that were needed and could not be covered under an advanced diploma.

Now it’s under the accreditation process by the Higher Education Council and we hope to start very soon.

UWN: When you start, how will the enrolment be done? Will you give priority to those who graduated before?

SM:Eligible applicants are those with advanced diploma certificates but the specific criteria will be announced in due course.

UWN: Talking about qualified trainers, how do you find trainers? Are they locally sourced or they are outsourced?

SM: It depends on areas. There are some engineering programmes that are already here in Rwanda but to teach at a TVET institution or technical institution, there are some other pedagogical skills that they must acquire. So, that’s what we do for those who are sourced locally.

But there are other areas where it is difficult to get local staff, here we outsource them – in the areas like wood technology, fashion design, and automobile-related programmes too because we don’t have a bachelor’s degree in automobile aspects in Rwanda, even at university level.

UWN: In terms of capacity development, do you have a set of requirements to offer courses in IPRCs?

SM: Normally there is a general requirement issued by the Higher Education Council as per the regulations and this is what we follow.

We encourage our staff to further their studies. But also, what kind of studies and in which institution? As I said we are working on a staff development plan where colleges are identifying areas of training for further studies that their academic staff will be advised to acquire. This is a five-year plan, and this will show areas where we need PHDs, and where we need to train for masters depending on what we have.

UWN: What has been the impact so far in terms of job creation and private sector development?

SM: I don’t have specific statistics. There is a survey that was done last year about those who are self-employed and those that are employed. The survey that was done in 2018 showed that 70% of our graduates got a job between six months and one year after graduation.

Last year there was another survey by the Ministry of Labour and Public Service that looked at the employment rate after graduation among Rwandan universities and its findings showed that in all colleges of RP, 69% of graduates got a job.

That’s not a bad rating. It shows that our students are in demand in the labour market. We also look at the interest of companies. Once we are about to graduate, companies ask us to give them fresh graduates for professional internships.

We see some companies retaining them. That means we are contributing to the growth because when you are bringing in new people, the production also increases. That’s how we want to measure that.

Our students also get involved in joint infrastructure projects for example building houses for the vulnerable, and community bridges.

UWN: How is the relationship between industries and RP institutions and what is needed to improve it?

SM: Normally, for every programme we are developing, the industries are the first to be contacted. We start something called the DACUM process whereby the practitioners or the industry come and tell us about the skills needed.

We do what we call incubation analysis. Let’s say we talk about the construction sector, what are the occupations there? They tell us about those occupations and the skills they need for those occupations. That’s what we take and translate into the learning content or the curriculum.

So, it starts from there and then we go and develop the programme. This is in the competence-based training which we started last year. And it’s been going well so far. That’s their contribution to our curriculum. In the other engagements, in the industrial attachment where we send our students to go and acquire some skills, there are three things: there is the curriculum, there is the industrial attachment, and we also work with them on solutions they may need where we can help.

But also, during some training, there are times when we don’t have equipment and in that case the students go and do the practical training in the industry. That is how it is designed. And the Bachelor of Technology is designed the same way. Some training will be done in the industry because it is really applied, it’s project-based learning where students will work on real cases. In that way, we have really worked with industries to make sure that we cultivate a partnership.

UWN: IPRCs should have more workshops. What is the status of workshops in different IPRCs currently?

SM: We have been gradually expanding and many colleges now have have very good workshops and labs and it is a continuous endeavour since the technology also keeps evolving. We have the support of the Rwandan government that continually invests in upgrading the facilities and also different partners such as Agence française de Développement (AFD), World Bank, KfW and the Chinese government.

UWN: How do you ensure that the talents that are developed at IPRC thrive?

SM: We are planning to make sure that we have incubation spaces that are functioning to discover those talents. We also follow up on those students who entered competitions to see how we can help.

We recently had an event where we brought in successful young entrepreneurs from all colleges and those innovators who have developed some products, who have won local competitions. We brought them here to meet these entrepreneurs and learn from them. Those entrepreneurs were also willing to mentor those innovators.

We want to do this regularly. That was the first time where we wanted to create that platform for sharing and networking.
One thing that is lacking when you talk about students’ innovations, is the area of entrepreneurship, the entrepreneurship mindset, and [what] the incubation space will deal with.

UWN: How is RP gender sensitivity among its staff and students?

SM: We are very behind. Only 26% of our students are women. We are trying to encourage women, and we are intentional when students are selected to do certain things so that they can inspire others. And staff-wise, we are also behind. Only 20% of staff are women, mainly in the STEM environment. It’s a collective problem we are working together to correct.

UWN: The recent report by Transparency International Rwanda about gender-based corruption shows that the issue stands at 42% in universities and IPRCs. Which efforts do you make to reverse the trend?

SM: There are platforms where information is always shared. At college-level they have students’ affairs where they can report such cases but also the student unions. But we need to have policies that are (against that) and this is where we have been lagging. We must have internal policies like a whistle-blower policy to guide a student if they are harassed or an anti-corruption policy.

UWN: Where do you see RP in the next 10 or 20 years?

SM: That is a very good question. We want to be able to have graduates who are change-makers and of course, this comes with regular traceability surveys that give us data. For our students, we want to have a 90% graduation rate.
We need students who are outstanding, who are problem-solvers, and who want to take part in the community in responding to some of their challenges.

We are building the research and innovation capacity of our staff to make sure that we take part in solutions that drive the development agenda. We have few PhD holders on staff. In terms of the capacity of trainers, most of our staff we sent for further training.
When they return, we want them to contribute to the innovation ecosystem. We want to be able to fund ourselves, to reduce our reliance on the government budget through mobilising funds, research, proposals, partnership engagement, and so on.

We have established the RP Company that provides opportunities for training for our students through different projects and also will be helping to mobilise funding. The company utilises resources from within. It utilises our lecturers so we will bid on some projects and much of the money comes to support the infrastructure development that we have and enhance the quality of our education.

UWN: Universities have been losing qualified staff who seek green pastures elsewhere due to small wages. Can you tell us about your retention policy to ensure you keep qualified staff?

SM: Career progression is very important here at RP. Retention is through academic promotion but also by creating an environment for staff to thrive and do research. If we are talking about a budget for research, it should be research that allows people to do research. And there is also staff capacity to be exposed to the industry.

And where socio-economic aspects are concerned, if we can mobilise a lot of funding, it also goes to them. We could also be able to add to their salaries because they have worked to mobilise that funding. We are also exploring other aspects that have been implemented elsewhere such as tuition waivers for staff’s children.

UWN: What are the most pressing challenges that keep you awake

SM: There are what we call soft ones and hard ones. The soft challenge is the quality of our education system and the quality of our staff, and another is the infrastructure.

Some colleges really need to have improved infrastructure, learning centres, and student hostels. That is really challenging. And you can’t keep students focused when you know they are scattered around.

This article was updated on 31 January.