We’ve made a lot of progress, Prof. Cotton speaks to The Kaminuza Star, Part One

Prof. Philip Cotton, UR's Vice Chancellor, said the institution has made much progress since its formation. Photo: Rémy Uwayo

Since the merger in 2013 of various public higher learning institutions to form the University of Rwanda, the institution has been going through reforms to serve as the country’s best school. To understand that process, Moise M. Bahati interviewed Professor Philip Cotton, UR’s Vice Chancellor. In the first part of the conversation, Prof. Cotton speaks about the progress and the change from four-year to three-year undergraduate program in most schools. The interview was slightly edited for clarity.

It has been six years since the merger of different education institutions to form the University of Rwanda. What is the progress, achievements and challenges so far?

It depends on who you are, where you are standing and how you measure progress. But the university is one university now. I think that one of the challenges initially was how we were going to merge these universities to realize one identity, one university with many students, many staff and quite a number of campuses. So I think the progress in that regard has been good.

The progress has been good in terms of consolidating some of the things that we do, some of our operations, for example, ironing out some of the duplications that happened in the system when the former institutions operated in a fairly autonomous way. We’ve made a lot of progress in terms of establishing master’s degrees and Ph.D. degrees. We’ve made a lot of progress in terms of consolidating our research around things and attracting funding for centers of excellence that at the moment focus on research and development and innovation at master’s and postgraduate level. But, of course, we’ll have a trickledown effect to the undergraduate degrees.

I think we’ve made quite a bit of progress when we talk to our staff and students about reimagining our curricula. We’ve moved away from reviewing our curricula to reimagining our curricula. The College of Arts and Social Sciences is on quite an exciting path at the moment, with establishing a series of flexible learning journeys for students, where they accumulate a series of credits through minor and major subjects. And that for me is very exciting because students doing journalism might have an interest, for example, in international relations; and students doing international relations might have an interest in journalism. So students can now move between those different curricula in a much more flexible way. So you can individualize learning for students.

We’ve made some progress with digitizing our curricula across the institution; we’re at about 78 percent. Of course, some colleges are much higher than that. Some departments and schools have done particularly well. We’ve got one very good and high-functioning master’s degree, that is distance-learning. And having established those signature programs, those beacons, within the university, we’ve now embarked on a process of sharing that experience not only externally but across the colleges so that people can get excited about the prospect.

You asked me about achievements. It depends on how you measure achievement. What I won’t do is chase university world rankings that are biased towards universities that have been established for hundreds of years or that operate in a western ecosystem for universities. And that’s the case with a lot of rankings. A lot of rankings heavily rely on publication output or facilities or careers and destination for students. Of course, those rankings have been developed by people who work in a particular set of universities; and they don’t often reference their work to the work that we do in the global south.

But by some measure we’ve done extraordinarily well. In terms of quality of our research output, University of Rwanda produces about 49 percent of Rwanda’s indexed or recorded and international peer-reviewed databases. A lot that work is done collaboratively, and some of the very good work is done in collaboration with colleagues who work in the Ministry of Health, in RBC, the Ministry of Agriculture and RAB. So we do share that success with government agencies. But we also stand out in East Africa as a university that does very well in quality of research output and the way in which we communicate that.

The challenges?

One of the particular challenges is how we communicate that output to the outside world, not only in terms of telling people how successful we are, but in terms of making the message understood. So, the outcome of the piece of research, what is the implication of it; what is the impact of it, and how do you communicate that impact to policymakers but also to lay people? And I think that’s a good challenge to have.

With regard to challenges within the university, we’re constrained as a university. But I think we share that with many other universities around the world. There are very few universities around the world that have so much money that they fall over themselves. And, like most organizations, institutions and agencies, we have to ration what we spend and how we spend it. We have to have specific projects; we have to have justifications for what we do, specific campaigns, specific drivers and imperatives within the university – whether they are issues of student welfare, issues about quality of teaching, gender access to STEM subjects, or it’s about particular subject areas like medicine or dentistry or other areas like creative design.

But again, they are all good challenges to have. And depending on where you’re standing and what view you have of the university, you will see different challenges. What we want to do as a university is have a shared understanding of those challenges with the community of people in the university: the students, the academic staff, the administrative staff, but also our supporters in the towns in which we operate and in wide government.

Starting in the academic year 2016-2017, most of UR schools have been offering bachelor’s degree in a three-year period, down from four years. While the new policy reduced tuition fees, among other things, students say that some courses have been compressed and the time for practical ones is not enough. What do you make of that?

You know, if we had extended the journalism course to five or six years, people would again have been comparing it with the four-year program. Because the four-year program is what we know, so it is our reference point. So the reference point is always going to be four years. And we’ll have to make sure that in referencing the four-year program we’re actually speaking the same language. When you talk about compressing certain parts of the curriculum, that wasn’t ever the intention of going from four to three years.

But you haven’t actually challenged the content of the curriculum. And yet the content is not the first thing we should challenge. What we should challenge is the way in which people learn, and not the way we teach. Because we often obsess about the way we teach, about content, whereas what we should be focusing on is the way in which different students learn. Some students are visual learners; some are auditory learners. Some students learn strategically; some are deep learners, they need to understand things other students seem to sail through at a much more superficial level of learning and understanding. But people learn essentially in very different ways. And we use our curriculum and its content in a way that assumes that everybody learns in the same way.

In the interview with Moise M. Bahati, Prof. Cotton said that changing from a four-year to a three-year program was important. Photo: Rémy Uwayo

So there are so much more to this conversation about moving from a four-year to a three-year curriculum. If you look at some of the examples that caused us to be challenged about the way students learn, you might consider that in a medical curriculum of five years, students are only registered as students in the university for little more than three years. So they have quite a lot of downtime. Now, in certain subject areas you need that downtime to process information. And processing of information is part of learning, is part of maturation and part of development in your discipline.

But the way in which students prepare for exams means that they cram for exams. So what you see is cramming for exams, with high knowledge levels at the time people enter an exam hall. But then you see an exponential decay in that knowledge because there was no understanding; it wasn’t embedded. There were no links with current and prior knowledge. And so when students come back after long breaks, their knowledge has decayed to such an extent they almost have to start again. You have to refresh their knowledge, although refreshing knowledge is a positive thing.

We wanted very much to iron out these cramming episodes and the exponential knowledge. So you had much more continuous learning, but also trying to understand the different ways in which people learn, also having a much better appreciation of what it is that people actually need to know – what is fundamental to your engagement as a journalist or communication specialist in the future. So we introduced crosscutting things, rather than intended learning outcomes that were largely focused on knowledge to these graduate attributes.

We want somebody who is financially literate, somebody who is ICT literate. We want somebody who has a high level of functioning in terms of emotional intelligence and communication skills, people who are problem solvers, critical thinkers, ethical thinkers.

One the real challenges is that, when it comes to practical work, we would often send students out for internships. And, to my mind, that has been a part of university education that we’ve largely ignored, we’ve left to chance. Students have valuable experiences. Some students have connections, some students don’t. Some students go out and they’re engaged in positive ways; some go out and do photocopying and menial tasks. Now, there’s a lot of learning that can be gained from engaging in an organization at any level. You may understand time management, team work, but you don’t necessarily get to practice your skills.

So we move to a different view of programs like journalism, where we look to journalism as an apprenticeship. We look to journalism as a school in which you learn from critiquing your own lecturers’ articles and publications. You learn by re-writing and re-crafting the works with your lecturers. And we want very much to realize that. That was all part of going from a four-year to a three-year program.

Of course, we also wanted to reduce the economic burden on communities and families. When your family lose you to the university for four years, they lose certain other opportunities that come from your being at a work or becoming a productive member of that family. We have to remember that life at university is great fun. In fact, many students are protected from the vagaries of employment, while they are at university.

The move to three years was done to make learning much more exciting. But what students experience, I think, is people trying to squeeze four years into three years. That was never ever the intention. The intention was to really challenge people about how students learn, how you teach, how you assess and how you develop.

Read the second part of this interview

Ange Iliza contributed to the success of this interview.