‘Academic programmes should be designed around market needs’

Seasoned don Dr Papias Musafiri Malimba was recently appointed deputy principal for academics and research at the East African Christian College (EACC) in Kabuga, Kigali. A former minister of education and deputy vice-chancellor in charge of strategic planning and administration at the University of Rwanda, Musafiri Malimba brings a wealth of experience in the management of education, especially higher learning education, to the table. In an interview with University World News, he delves into different ways to turn the EACC into a holistically reputable university.

UWN: How would you describe the EACC?

PMM: The Province of the Anglican Church of Rwanda created the EACC in 2018. In 2020, it was fully accredited as one of the higher-learning institutions. We have seven core values that form the mission of the college, including creating capacity for the church leaders and providing the professionals and leaders of the church who have the skills and knowledge for community transformation.

For a Christian institution, the first core value is Christ-centredness, and then the other things will follow. It is building on that aspect in the four schools or faculties, with the School of Theology and Religion as the flagship. We offer bachelor degree programmes in theology and religion in the faculty as well as a post-graduate diploma programme.

There are also community outreach activities, a short capacity programme for members of the church, church leaders or pastors, and those who serve in all 13 Provinces of the Anglican Church in Rwanda. Our target group is not limited to the Anglican Church. We also provide an opportunity for all other denominations.

In the School of Theology and Religion, most of our faculty members are senior leaders in the church. So, bishops and canons constitute the majority of the faculty members who teach both undergraduate and postgraduate students.

The second faculty is the School of Health Sciences. We started with general nursing at a bachelor degree and an advanced degree level. We also have a midwifery programme. The School of Health Sciences has the potential to grow in a variety of disciplines related to public health and health sciences and it is contributing significantly to capacity-building in the health sector.

The third faculty is the School of Education. We started with a programme focusing on early childhood development. Right now, we are offering programmes at an advanced level with other programmes still in the accreditation process. Under the School of Education, we have an Early Childhood Development Centre (ECDC), one of the centres of excellence in Rwanda.

The fourth faculty is that of Business, Management and Economics. We started with a bachelor degree in monitoring and evaluation and have several other business-related programmes that still have to be accredited.

UWN: How is the ECDC helpful and why did you start it?

PMM: The centre is serving a double purpose. We receive children from the age of three months up to around six years old. It is as if we offer pre-nursery education and nursery education. We receive children from the neighbouring community here; we also receive kids from our own faculty and staff.

Notably, we have students who are mothers who want to come here to study but maybe they do not have a safe environment at home to leave their children. When they are seeking admission here, they also get admission for their children. You can imagine how comfortable those parents are studying here knowing that the kids are well taken care of, and sometimes they can pop in there and see what is happening. So, apart from serving the community around us, and serving our own staff who bring their children, it is a safe place for our student mothers.

We want to build an ecosystem of upbringing from the daycare level all the way to the tertiary level. In the future, we plan to add primary and secondary education to our tertiary education faculty.

This ECDC is also helping to establish and run similar centres in other places. For example, there is a centre in the city of Kigali that was set up with our help and is supported where the capacity-building of caregivers is concerned. We are discussing another centre at the Legacy Hospital, and many other institutions have shown an interest in partnering.

UWN: Apart from being a Christian college, what else makes your university unique?

PMM: We really want to make a difference – not just add programmes like they are mushrooming elsewhere. I think we shall be bringing the programmes in a unique way, focusing on the skill set that we need to realise our country’s vision of 2035 and 2050. We need to have the skills of the future.

For example, in the area of management, how do you link business management with digital transformation? The same applies to financial services and technology. Fintech is a new area in the financial industry but is led by the digital economy and digital transformation, anchored with technology. We are looking at these kinds of cutting-edge programmes in all our faculties.

UWN: You have vast experience in education. How do you intend to use the experience to boost this college?

PMM: Let me make this comment clear: people think that I am a well-made person, but I am not. I am still in the making. I can tell you that I am learning a lot. Maybe this experience is helping me to become a fast learner and get used to this institution.

So, instead of taking several months, it will take a short time to be fully immersed. I know higher learning institutions – public and private, and I know how they struggle, especially at the beginning. This might help our university to gain ground in the sector faster.

UWN: What are the key tips for university management?

PMM: There are things we need to avoid, but if you want to build quality education, there should be values. If you want to shape an institution, it is better to do that from the start rather than try and change things 10 or 20 years down the line. It is difficult to change academic traditions. It is a tremendous opportunity to shape such a young institution that is starting and growing like ours; to bring in some of the practices and values which are the norms of building academic quality.

Academic quality starts with very good programmes that meet the needs of the community. You must identify the gaps and create unique programmes. You also need qualified faculty. That is why I said that we are struggling like all other higher learning institutions, but we are aware of that.

How do you use the faculty you have and how do you create local, regional and international partnerships? Another tip is resources. How do you use the few resources you have, and how do you also tap into resources from elsewhere? So, when you get those things together, you implement quality management systems, policies and procedures and you keep preaching these quality systems until they are fixed into the minds of everyone.

UWN: When the college started, it was believed to be for religion-related courses. How did you introduce other courses?

PMM: Having the theology programmes as the flagship is a good start for a Christian academic institution. You are preparing the people who will transform society. But you cannot transform society by focusing on religion alone; you also need to look for other aspects which will empower the community. That’s why we have to impact health professionals because the Anglican churches also run hospitals.

The Anglican Church also has more than 600 schools, and that is why we need to prepare educators at all levels. We also have to prepare professionals in the area of business management and economics, because the church has projects that are impacting on the community. We are looking at it in a holistic way of transforming society, apart from religion and theology. Later on, we shall implement programmes in other disciplines such as ICT and engineering.

UWN: How do you ensure that the courses are learner-centred?

PMM: We need to stop teaching only the theory. Our students go to practise in the communities, and we have our faculty members following them and providing feedback. About half their time is spent in practice. Students in health sciences practise in hospitals, for example. We are aware that real teaching and learning take place at the bedside of the patient, not in the classroom. So, there is a good mix between theory and practice.

UWN: Universities have been blamed for churning out half-baked graduates unable to respond to the market demand. What is your opinion?

PMM: This general perception that there is a poor quality of education and poor quality of graduates from different institutions is true. Building quality is a process. You cannot fix everything with just one magic bullet. We need to engage all the role-players to participate, including the industry.

When we say that students should spend 50% of their time learning theory and 50% in practice, but if they are not well supervised by the people in the industry, the issue will remain. We need to bring everyone on board; we need to agree with the industry on curriculum content to ensure the students will have the skills needed. We also need to continue exchanging feedback between academia and industry.

UWN: Universities are blamed for being more traditional as they have not yet adjusted their programmes with emerging technology and market demand. Why do you think this is happening?

PMM: Change is not happening fast enough. I think we should have changed our approach to teaching-learning yesterday already, because we are still teaching theories based on books that are completely outdated. Knowledge is everywhere nowadays and is freely available to anyone if you have a computer or your smartphone, or any other device.

So how do you orient the students to use this freely accessible knowledge to solve the community development challenges? That is what makes a difference. When you compare our academic health programme to that of Harvard [University in Boston in the US], on paper they are not fundamentally different.

But the difference is in the mode of delivery. The faculty and teachers at Harvard work with students on solving the community-based problem. So, the approach to teaching and learning is not in the classrooms but it is around what is called the problem-solving approach, challenge-driven approach, and new product development approach. That is where the difference is. And that is also where we need to change.

UWN: There have been concerns about universities not working closely with industry to ensure graduates meet the market demand. Is the industry not cooperative?

PMM: I think it is not fair to say the industry is not willing. Our industry is willing but maybe not ready. They are things that are also still lacking on their side. There might be staff challenges, especially in growing businesses, which means students cannot be mentored sufficiently.