Students left frustrated by uneven harmonisation process

Students from countries that form part of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which has agreed on a harmonised qualification framework to advance regional mobility as well as the portability and comparability of qualifications, are complaining that they have to wait for months before their qualifications are approved in Kenya.

This has been especially tough on refugees from Somalia and South Sudan whose education systems are still unstable, a fact that has made it difficult for them to gain access to quality education in countries of their choice.

Many citizens from South Sudan stream into Kenya in search of refuge and a fresh start. Due to their height, many Sudanese teenagers are sought after by basketball coaches in colleges and universities who offer them scholarship opportunities to play for their teams.

Somalia and South Sudan, together with Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Djibouti, Uganda and Eritrea are members of IGAD.

These states agreed on a harmonised qualification framework on 14 December 2017. A task force created to oversee the implementation of the programme gathered in 2018 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to lay out their plan of action.

During an IGAD conference in March 2022, it was agreed that each country would be allowed to follow their own education systems, but standards would have to concur with the set regional qualification framework that would be established. These frameworks also interface with the African Continental Qualifications Framework (ACQF), which involves 55 countries and eight regional frameworks.

Uneven regional process

But it has been an uneven regional process.

The KNQA has also been helping to develop, implement and monitor the development of frameworks in other countries. The last workshop, involving Uganda and Ethiopia, took place in Entebbe, Uganda, in October 2022.

The IGAD qualification framework, in practical terms, means that it is mandatory for foreigners to accredit their qualifications before joining any institution for any given purpose.

Before joining a higher education institution in Kenya, for instance, one is expected to have met the required high school standards, which is a mean grade of at least a C+. A foreign student seeking to join the same institution will have to show that they achieved an academic qualification from their country which is equivalent to that of the Kenyan standard.

KNQA converts its high school grades to verify whether they meet the standards. This is a tedious process, given the difference in curricula and education standards for different countries.

Dr Alice Kande, acting director general of the KNQA, explained that many foreign qualifications are awarded without clarification on whether they are accredited in their countries of origin, what they required in terms of learning input, the skills they impart and their equivalence to local qualifications.

The authority is playing an important role in ensuring the country only accepts and recognises foreign qualifications that meet the national standard. The process also protects the country from accepting fake and substandard qualifications, she said.

Teething problems

But students are experiencing the teething problems of an uneven harmonisation process in the region.

James Mathiang, from South Sudan, for example, has been offered a sports scholarship by Africa Nazarene University in Kenya, but is yet to join since the qualification process has not yet been completed.

“It has already been four months since I was offered the scholarship, but I am yet to understand how the conversion process works. I may have to sit for another qualification exam in Kenya since my papers are not recognised by the KNQA,” Mathiang told University World News.

Rollins Oduk, who has been on a basketball scholarship at the Uganda Martyrs University, recalls that it took him almost two years to convert his secondary school certificates to meet the qualification requirements of the Ugandan system.

“Since Uganda does not have a qualification system like Kenya, I had no choice but to enrol in one of their secondary schools and sit for fresh exams so that I could be accepted by their higher education institutions,” Oduk said.

“In the meantime, I could still play for the university and got some financial benefits while I waited. This [the qualification framework] is a good move by IGAD and it will help a lot of foreigners like myself,” Oduk told University World News.

Dr Juma Mukhwana, the former director general of the KNQA said earlier: “In some of these countries, someone can struggle for up to six months to figure out their qualification. In other countries, students might wait two years after arrival just to find out where they need to take their qualifications for processing.

“These are the issues that having a harmonised system is expected to address. In Kenya, for instance, it takes about 48 hours to have your qualifications verified,” Mukhwana explained.

But the 48 hours appears to be a best-case scenario.

Kande of the KNQA pointed out that the authority’s service charter qualifications’ processing time is 14 to 60 working days from receipt of an application. This is counted from date of receipt of all relevant documents provided by the applicants.

The documents required are certified copies of each qualification certificate to be evaluated, certified copies of the official transcripts of each qualification to be evaluated, certified copies of certificates and transcripts of the qualification preceding the one that has been submitted for evaluation, certified copies of identity document or birth certificates for children under the age of 18 for citizens or passport for foreigners, translations (if applicable) together with the documents in the original language prepared by a sworn translator.

Red tape

Despite the difficulties the KNQA faces in verifying foreign qualifications and its service charter prescribing the processing time, some critics still believe the authority could do more to solve some problems.

According to Zetech University, a private institution in Ruiru, Kiambu County, in Kenya, it is hard for institutions to enrol international students due to the bureaucracy of specific government offices that frustrates the effort of both the potential students and the recruiting universities. There is a disconnection that makes it necessary for the concerned offices to sit with the universities and discuss a way forward.

“To join Zetech, foreign students are expected to have a visa, a student pass, and the KNQA equation to be admitted. It is particularly difficult for Somali students because of the fear of terrorism; hence the student pass takes too long to process,” said Dr Catherine Njoki, liaison and resource mobilisation director at Zetech. A student’s pass can take up to eight months, which makes some give up entirely.

“The students are also required to equate their results with the [requirements of the] KNQA. This government body is slow in its service delivery, and they decline to support the recruiting institutions with a general guideline of how students can get temporary admission as they await confirmation.

“The KNQA should become a little flexible with such information and realise the country needs the foreign exchange as much as the institutions need the students,” Njoki told University World News. She said that IGAD should bring all stakeholders involved together to help solve these issues.