Higher Education in Rwanda: The Ambitious Goals and Persistent Challenges of the National and Private University Systems

Feature image: The Kigali campuses of the UR College of Business and Economics (left) and the Akilah Institute (right).

By Lukas Corey

We began our first day in Rwanda with an ambitious three-hour bus ride through the hills to the new campus of the University of Global Health Equity in Butaro. There, we were greeted by Sam Rusine, a student at the University in their two-year Master’s Degree in Global Health Delivery program. We were treated to a tour of a gorgeous campus with high-tech lecture halls, beautiful workspaces, plentiful views of the surrounding landscape, and an amazing four-dollar meal. 

A view of the countryside (left) as we traveled by bus to the University of Global Health Equity campus (middle). We were treated to lunch by Sam Rusine, a Master’s student at the university (right).

The university, at the time, only offered the fully-funded, Partners for Health program. It is led by a powerhouse team, including Vice Chancellor Agnes Binagwaho, MD, M(Ped), PhD, a longtime leader in the Rwandan Ministry of Health, and professor at Harvard Medical School. There are also numerous other Ivy-League-associated professors and experienced health professionals. This is quite exceptional as fully-funded graduate education programs taught by world-class professors are not the norm for higher education in Rwanda. 

Just a couple years ago, Sam was studying at the University of Rwanda (UR), a conglomerate of all previous public institutions of higher learning in Rwanda formed in 2013. Here, more than 30,000 students, the significant majority of college students in Rwanda, take classes every single year. All other institutions in Rwanda (there are roughly forty) are private. This begs certain questions: what determines what type of education is available to someone? Who gets into the University of Rwanda, and what does their education look like? Why do some people go to private institutions instead? What are the goals of these various institutions, and how are they aiming to grow and improve?

Sam Rusine gave us a tour of the classrooms.

Teaching Theory in Rwandan Higher Education

One idea that pervades higher education in Rwanda is that learning exists largely outside of the classroom. Everyone from university students to professors and deans emphasized that the old style of attending lectures and memorizing facts was over. For example, Philip Cotton, Vice Chancellor of the University of Rwanda asserted “We push back on that at the University of Rwanda. We say there’s going to be less reliance on these high-stakes, summative assessments.” His idea of education involves blending students’ preexisting knowledge of a subject and natural curiosity to inspire further independent study.

At the Akilah Institute, a girls-only college in Kigali, we heard a similar distaste for memorization learning. Instead, there was an appreciation for technical skills. The girls emphasized the value of approaching education from what the Akilah Institute calls “competencies.” For the hospitality management program, this included learning how to set a table in a certain style, practicing handling customer complaints, and making reservations. Akilah also works to integrate new technologies like Canvas, a common American online education platform, to allow professors to track student progress better and give more individualized feedback.

These two responses are representative of different types of what many labeled “student-centered” learning. However, it is worth noting that significant challenges persist in effective implementation of these new methods. At UR, class sizes are commonly very large, and a significant portion of their lecturers lack much teaching experience. According to a student, faculty interaction is rare. At Akilah, the curriculum is rather limited, only including three majors (Hospitality and Management, Information Technologies, and Business). Students in small private schools like this one have limited opportunities for academic exploration.

College Admissions and Choices 

Many, however, would consider the ability to study at either the University of Rwanda or a well-known private school like Akilah an unimaginable privilege. Testing, wealth, and background remain intricately linked to the admissions criteria of these institutions and the ability of students to afford attendance.

The requirements to apply

A critical feature of the college admissions process in Rwanda is a national exam, a result slip for which is pictured above. There are various subject groups that students can select for their national exam (somewhat similar to SAT subject tests in the United States) which qualify you to apply to different colleges and majors. While administrators stressed efforts to promote socioeconomic and regional diversity in the University of Rwanda, this test still poses an important barrier for those with lower quality secondary education. Students at the University of Rwanda commonly noted that Kigali and parts of the Southern district are known to have the best schools. Requirements for different programs at the University of Rwanda differ some, but at least two “principal passes” with 18 or more points is a common requirement (the requirements below are for the 2019-2020 admissions cycle at UR).

Generally, students who pass these requirements receive bursaries from the Rwandan government for UR tuition, but that does not make the decision to attend easy. Private colleges often provide a lower-cost option-a reason students at the Akilah Institute cited as part of their decision. Other reasons cited include the challenge of potential relocation at UR (Different colleges are at different campuses) and a rumored lack of qualified instructors. For some, private colleges (such as those in the United States), seem to offer a more community-centric and tailored approach to higher education often with lower testing requirements.

Another important aspect of college admissions in Rwanda is language. At some schools with greater western influence, like the Akilah Institute, English proficiency is an important requirement. At other private colleges, classes are still taught in French, the traditional language of higher education in Rwanda before the government made English the official language in 2008. That 2008 Ministry of Education initiative states “English language shall be a medium of instruction. [It] shall be taught as a second language while French is taught as an optional language at all levels except in lower primary (P.1, P.2 and P.3) where the medium of instruction shall be Kinyarwanda.”

As I experienced throughout my time in Rwanda, the level of English language ability required to take classes in English is only somewhat common in noticeably wealthy populations or people who work frequently with foreigners. Otherwise, it is exceedingly rare.

According to Vice Chancellor Cotton, UR “has representation from all social groups and all areas of the country.” The Akilah institute boasts on their website that 55 percent of students come from rural areas and 78 percent are first generation college students. These efforts are clearly having an impact, but the barriers of language, test scores, and tuition costs remain significant. Leaders in Rwandan higher education continue to consider how to best provide underserved communities with access to the same quality education as others.

Bright College Years 

To learn more about what being a college student in Rwanda and at UR specifically was like, I talked to Selman Niyinyobora, a third year maths student from the Western Province in the College of Science and Technology in Kigali. His parents were farmers and wanted him to be one as well, but he decided to pursue his dream of being a civil aviation engineer through higher education.

Like one might expect, Selman attends classes and does homework much like college students do elsewhere. At the time, as a maths major, he was taking five classes–inferential statistics, multivariable analysis, stochastic processes, entrepreneurship, and partial differential equations. Although his classes mainly focus on his major, he said that he can take two classes per year as electives.

Outside of his classes, he is part of the entrepreneurship club, one of the largest clubs on campus at around 70 people. Another of the largest clubs is the “antisida” or anti-HIV club. Other than this, he mentioned that club participation is fairly rare across most UR students. However, a former principal of the College of Science and Technology and current administrator, Professor Safari Bonfils, mentioned efforts to promote Friday student-staff sports games and other activities had begun. Selman’s experience with extracurriculars also contrasts starkly with that of students at the Akilah institute, where each of the three students we talked to listed at least five clubs they were in, such as Toastmasters (a public speaking club), Debate,  Straight Talk (on reproductive health and relationships), and Ambassador club.

Our tour guide and group at the Akilah Institute (left) and the UR College of Science and Technology (right).

At UR, housing availability is made a priority for first-year and low-income students. Many students, however, live off campus. There are also school-sponsored apartments, but Selman noted these can cost significantly more than sharing space with friends. Selman lives with family he has in the area to save money. The school also has medical staff for students, but these apparently also often cost more than off-campus options. These are by no means problems specific to UR, but they may have more significant impacts on the socioeconomically diverse population at UR than elsewhere globally. UR does, however, provide free mental health services, with 100-200 counselors according to Selman. The Akilah Institute currently does not provide housing for students.

Although classes are often large, Professor Bonfils and VC Cotton described efforts to improve the quality of education through student feedback and various new initiatives. Work to help existing UR staff pursue higher degrees and to hire qualified professors has led to an increase in academic staff holding PhDs from 18 percent in 2013 to 23 percent in 2018. Transparency has also improved as students are now universally able to request to see their final exams after grading, and term exams must be turned in one week before finals to allow time for review. In addition, professors hold office hours to interact more with students and provide mentorship. Further feedback from students is incorporated via student representatives to the University Board and the Senate, as well as one for each year, each department, and each college.

An example of results from the Examination for the Rwanda Advanced Level Certificate of Education, a critical test in Rwandan college admissions.

Postgrad Woes 

With a strongly technical and “competency-based” education from Akilah, 88 percent of students are employed within six months of graduation. However, Selman had significant concerns about his chances of getting a good job after graduation. He said that about half of students he knew that graduated went on to work in government jobs whereas the other half went into private businesses. He hoped to do well enough to get a job with the government or teaching at UR, which could then  prepare him well to later go into civil aviation, but that he might have to start some sort of online business. He said that getting a job after graduation is highly dependent on performance in school and teacher recommendations.

Visiting the Kimironko Market in Kigali later, I encountered a vendor named Moses who told me he used to be a student at the College of Business and Economics studying to be a CPA, but he stopped before finishing his degree. He said he would have to begin paying his loans if he finished, and that these would be about 1,200,000 Rwandan francs per year for a total of about 5242 USD over four years. He said he was instead planning to make his own company because he was not confident he would find a job after graduating anyway. He was unaware of services provided by UR to help their students find jobs.

Later, I talked with Andre Uzamurengera, a Master’s Degree student at Carnegie Mellon University Africa in Kigali. After performing well at UR as an undergrad, he was accepted into CMU Africa and is also an assistant professor of computer science UR. Top students are often given higher degree training and offered opportunities at the University as a way of recruiting future professors. While this is what many students might like to do, it was clear that Andre was one of the few students able to pursue this path. CMU Africa works to bring their students to the same standard as those in the United States, meaning they often stay at the University’s Kigali campus from early in the morning until very late at night working.

Spot the Difference 

Rwandan Universities, colleges, and institutes, in many ways, proved strikingly similar to those in the United States. Regardless of vastly smaller resources than US schools of comparable size, they demonstrate strong commitments to inclusion, transparency, safety, and education innovation. This work has led to the University of Rwanda having the second highest normalized citation impact in East Africa last year and rising up in the rankings. VC Cotton credited an extremely supportive government for the progress the University of Rwanda has made, saying “I’m probably the luckiest Vice Chancellor out of all 27,000 across the globe because of the vision this government has for its country through its young people.” Although funding and implementation remain challenges in providing the sort of safe space for exploration and learning VC Cotton says is the point of a University, talented and dedicated Rwandan educators have repeatedly proved their ability to overcome these challenges and undoubtedly will continue to.

Lukas Corey is a junior in Pauli Murray College studying Molecular, Cellular, & Developmental Biology. He can be contacted at lukas.corey@yale.edu.