“No single constraint that stops us from being a university that has impact and influence,” Prof. Cotton, Part Two

Prof. Philip Cotton, University of Rwanda Vice Chancellor, speaks to The Kaminuza Star about issues pressing the institution. Photo: Rémy Uwayo

The first part of our interview with Professor Philip Cotton, Vice Chancellor of the University of Rwanda, he talked about the progress of UR. In the second part of the interview he speaks about the catch-up program for Gitwe students, shortage of hostels and the way forward for the University of Rwanda. You can read the first part here. The interview was slightly edited for clarity.

Students from the University of Gitwe, who are doing catch-up program at University of Rwanda, complain that they are not well treated and this has remained for some months. Why is it taking long to integrate them into the university?

We’ve talked to them at many occasions to help them understand. Always, we have talked about protecting their future postgraduate careers. Because when a medical doctor graduates from the university, they, in many cases, have to go and do further training that maintains them at same level of skills and competences. Or, they do higher training to become either a general surgeon or a specialized one, a neurosurgeon and whatever. Pursuing those goals means that you have to have an absolutely watertight academic record.

We want to make sure that when students graduate in medicine from the University of Rwanda – if they started their program in University of Gitwe or any other university – have complete, watertight transcripts. But we weren’t able to provide that from their learning journeys at University of Gitwe, and there were some discrepancies, for example, the pass mark in Gitwe had been 50%, while in UR, it had been 60%. We were not responsible for the teaching or the assessing of those students. So, we have no record of the comprehensive nature of that assessment. We don’t have assessment blueprint, for example. And we need to make sure that, at the point they start gaining credits at UR, we can attest to the integrity of their learning journeys.

Therefore, we embarked on developing a catch-up program for different categories of students who came from the University of Gitwe. We determined what they would need to do to fill any gaps between the curricula they had been following and the curricula they would have done had they been learning in UR. We put together some fairly tough periods of study for them. And at times they felt as if they were going over stuff that they had already learned. But we knew that there were some things that they hadn’t learned.

So, we never had any doubt that we might be teaching them some things they had learned before. And we needed to demonstrate that they had indeed learned those things. But they were certainly things that we would have taught differently, we would have a slightly different emphasis on, and things we knew they hadn’t learned.

We said that in order to attest to their knowledge at the point of entry in UR, we would ask them to sit for a comprehensive test that sampled everything they learned in the previous years in University of Gitwe. If they were able to pass the exam, then they would be registered as fulltime University of Rwanda students.

The cost of the program has also attracted different points of view.

There has been some concern on their part about the amount of money they have to pay for the catch-up program. But rather than charging them for a full academic year of study, we decided that we would charge them per credit. So, students doing a catch-up program that will give them less than 120 credits will not have to pay for a full academic year. And we felt that that was the fairest way to cost a program. The students are studying in the University of Rwanda, but for this year they are technically registered UR students.

With regard to how they feel they’ve been treated, then I regret any situation where students or staff feel that they’ve been treated less than they deserve. But this program put some pressure on the School of Medicine, when it was already under a lot of pressure from external agencies for the quality of its own programs.

The students also have to remember all the time that the minute you become a medical student, you sign up to a professional code of conduct. And part of that code of conduct is to work as hard as you can, for as many people as you can, for as long as long as you can.

Huye Campus is UR’s biggest, with more than 8,000 students. But hostels can accommodate only less than half of those who want live on campus. Are there plans to build more hostels?

We’re already building hostels on some campuses. We have a big hostel building project on Nyarugenge campus. There’s some negotiation about building hostels with an American foundation on one of the other campuses. Looking at models around the world, there are some universities that are their own towns, their own villages where everybody lives on campus, the staff and the students. But for us we want our campuses to be very much a part of the local communities and to contribute to the social and economic fabric of the communities.

We still see students who align to certain faith groups worshipping on campus, and not with local communities, for example. But we would want to see fairly seamless borders between university campuses and towns – what in some places is called a town-and-gown relationship. So, we have embarked on a policy of providing accommodation where possible for first year students, for girls and students living with disability. We don’t want to limit the experiences people have and we certainly don’t want to shut ourselves off from local communities. So, we are looking at a very mixed approach to accommodation on campuses. But we want to make sure that the most vulnerable students within our community as a university are catered for on our campuses.

We’ve got a bit of a way to go, in some of the campuses, in terms of provision for students living with disability. There’s an exciting project with the Mackintosh School of Art in Scotland to create a completely new type of mixed-living accommodation for students on Huye campus. There have been some visits and project groups working on that.

Prof. Cotton speaks to The Kaminza Star’s Moise M. Bahati. Photo: Rémy Uwayo

Finally, in spite of all the constraints, and of course there’s some progress, what is the way forward for Rwanda’s best university?

The constraints aren’t huge and they are not very different from universities anywhere in the world. We may be limited in the number or the capacity of classrooms we currently have, but the challenge is to teach people differently, help people learn differently. We’re more often constrained by the speed with which we’re able to do things. We constrain ourselves rather than being constrained by external factors. The university has to become a place where people are liberated to be the best. Again, it’s that whole narrative about mindsets and abilities to think beyond where we are. If we believe that we are constrained, then we will simply live up to other people’s prejudices of what we’re able achieve as a university in Africa. So, we have to live beyond those constraints and prejudices. The real constraints with us might be that an academic member of staff feels constrained in the ability to travel between campuses. But there has to be a response to that, which is a very positive challenge.

There are people in some campuses who are constrained by their discomfort at teaching things within their school or department. Yet, there people in other schools in the university who would feel liberated by teaching those things. We’ve got to be much better at addressing those issues. There are constraints, but there’s no single constraint that stops us from being a university that has impact and influence. With our university, we’ve got some fine and quite remarkable and credible members of staff who are really producing work way beyond their peers. And we have, of course like any university in the world, the brightest, most hopeful, talented and skilled people you can find in any university, and they are the students. When you look at the progress we’ve made, what is possible for any university to achieve, we can achieve all of that with what we have, because the most powerful thing we have is the human resolves with our institution.

Ange Iliza contributed to the success of this interview.