From UNR to UR: Remarkable changes that led to University of Rwanda

Stressing that people celebrate the fruits regardless of all behind the scenes could not be exaggeration if stated that “Celebrating Rwanda’s remarkable changes from primary to university education seemed impossible until the Canadian Father Georges Henri Levesque stepped his feet at the Kigali International Airport.” This article explores some remarkable moments that form the journey led to current University of Rwanda, the former National University of Rwanda (NUR).

The NUR was created by the Government of Rwanda in partnership with the Congregation of the Dominicans from the Province of Quebec (Canada) in 1963. Initially, the NUR was composed of three faculties namely; the Faculty of Medicine, the Faculty of Social Sciences and the Teacher Training College (ENS). The three academic units had 51 students and 16 lecturers.

How did the University of Rwanda start?

In an exclusive interview with in 2021, Dr. Ntabomvura Vénant, a 95 old man shared the story of beginning of the National University of Rwanda.

Firstl, Dr. Ntabomvura says he met Domican Father George Henry Levesque at the International Airport. He was speaking on phone with other Canadians telling them he comes to create university in Rwanda after late Kayibanda Gregoire’s  quest who was the President that time.

Dr. Ntabomvura shook Levesque’s hand and introduced himself as medical assistant in the Ministry of Health. They got acquainted to one another and became friends.

Why was the National University of Rwanda built in Butare?

After landing in Rwanda, Levesque started going around looking for the plot for university building. He went around Kigali, the Capital of Rwanda but he missed land because even ministries had no plots for their buildings. He went to former Gitarama, Ruhengeri counties and then to former Butare Prefecture (current Huye District in Southern Province).

Initial National University of Rwanda, current UR Huye Campus

By Reaching Butare, he found the free building which known as ‘Bâtiment Centrale’ which comprised the classrooms for Belgian Elementaly students whom their parents flied back to Belgium after Rwanda got independence. They were afraid that the angry black would kill their children.

From there [Butare], Levesque went back to Kigali happily “I found my home. I am going to start university.”

There were not even secondary school graduates!

Fellow Whites who were in Rwanda laughed at him. They told him: “You have got a building and that’s fine. But where will you get students from, will you teach the trees?

Levesque answered them that they did not invite to him come in Rwanda. They advised him to train primary students for six years to have them ready for joining university which he shook his head and said that he had come to start university.

Dr. Ntabomvura was there. He told to Levesque that Kayibanda invited him to start university and not primary school. Dr. Ntabomvura immediately told him to pen his name on a list of students to start with university. He told him he graduated from secondary school with a certificate promised him to select other students.

What was the next step after first student’s registration?

After being the first student registered to join university, Dr. Ntabomvura started looking for other fellows. Starting from Kigali he registered Dr. Gashakamba and Sindikubwabo, Mbarutso from Butare among others. These were pleased and he said “We are fortunate to get a university”.

By Getting to Gitarama, they laughed at him. They told him that he wanted was to deceive them. They said they couldn’t leave their jobs and go back to school as children. Dr. Ntabomvura said he was lucky to see all registered students, 52 in total joining the university in November 1963. Among them 15 were medical students.

Challenges after start of teaching

People including Belgians saw the studying ran within good environment and started murmuring into Canadians’ ears. They opinioned that surgery courses were impossible within only three academic years so that the students might study it later.

The instance did not please the students and they immediately sent Dr. Ntabomvura to Levesque to tell him about hardship as they were friends and later he went to Minister Rwasibo claiming that the students were wasting their time.

Resolution to the challenge

For God’s sake as Dr. Ntabomvura said, the Head of Belgian University came to visit gorillas and ex President Kayibanda invited him for conversation.

“You know Rwanda, you know what we want. So let your university lead our faculty of medicine for us to keep our relation”, Kayibanda said.

After the conversation the head of Belgian University sent the head of medical department who spent like two weeks in Butare and then they sent lecturers.

Those Belgian lecturers started teaching even those lectures but Canadians denied them. That time, the faculty of medicine was shifted from Canadian University to the Belgian University.

Dates and facts about the National University of Rwanda

Yes the National University of Rwanda was created and went under remarkable moments including dark moments of Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. Here below are key dates and events until the end of 1998.

November 03, 1963: The NUR was opened officially
May 12, 1964:Law establishing the NUR.
1966: PNUD (UNDP) and UNESCO funded the creation of the National Institute of Education. It aimed at training and improving elementary secondary school teachers’ skills and implementing multidisciplinary pedagogical research.

1967: University extension was created a unity highlight university services to people

1972: The Faculty of medicine got a research center on pharmacopoeia and traditional medicine (CUPHARMETRA) which became an autonomous body since 1980.
May 1973:The NUR and the Ghent Faculty of Applied Sciences started a continuous training program for civil engineers specialized in building. They also set up a four-project program in electromechanic engineering.

October 1973:The Faculty of Law was opened under the contribution of the University of Instelling Antwerpen.
1974:Creation of acenter for study and experimentation of energy in Rwanda and it became autonomous since 1977.
June 13, 1979:Creation of the Faculty of Agronomy which was a department in the Faculty of Science.
October 1st, 1981: The NUR and the NIE (National Institute of Education) merged. One campus at Ruhengeri and other at Butare and later the Faculty of Law shifts to Mburabuturo (Gikondo, Kigali)

November 1988:The Institute of Public Administration (ISAP) was opened under the NUR and Konrad Adanauer Foundation (FKA) cooperation. The NUR celebrated the 25th anniversary.

April-July 1994:Genocide happened and took a big number of students and staff leaving again laboratory equipment, the computer equipment and academic infrastructure destroyed or taken away. The doors were then shut.
January 1995:Ruhengeri campus and the Kigali Faculty of Law became part of the campus of Butare.

April 1995: NUR reopened and all faculties and schools were brought to Butare campus for both security and administrative reasons. The campus of Butare saw an increase in number of students to cater for from 1600 to 4500 plus wounds to dress, the buildings to repair and English became a new language of teaching.

April 25th, 1996:Establishment of the School of Information Sciences and techniques (ESTI).
1997:Establishment of a preliminary year of language learning (French and English) for all beginners.
1998:The Faculty of Medicine got a doctorate level and
End of 1998: The Faculty of Sciences and that of Applied Sciences were combined to form the Faculty of Sciences and Technology.

Establishment of the University of Rwanda

Pioneered by a Task Force led by key national, regional and international individuals in higher education, the UR was established pursuant to the law no 71/2013 of 10/09/2013 by the Government of Rwanda. It was after merging seven public Higher Learning Institutions into one entity. It is governed by the Board of Governors and an Academic Senate with strong staff and student representation, along with the Vice Chancellor (the University’s chief executive officer) and Chancellor who is the Titular Head. The UR’s senior management team which includes three deputy Vice Chancellors and six College Principals is led by the Vice-Chancellor.

The UR has six academic colleges within seven campuses all over the country, under those there are departments and schools. They are College of Arts and Social Sciences (CASS), College of Agriculture, Animal Sciences and Veterinary Medicine (CAVM), College of Business and Economics (CBE), College of Education (CE), College of Medicine and Health Sciences (CMHS), College of Science and Technology (CST).

University of Rwanda is a multi-campuses institution

Why was the UR created? 

The UR was created with the purpose of enhancing the quality of Rwanda’s higher education provision, while achieving economies of scale and efficiency in operation. It was also expected to become a leading University in Africa.

Creation of the UR was to make known for innovative approaches to teaching, learning, research and connections with the community and with the nation’s vision for development plus recognition of being an exemplary employer.

Since its establishment, the UR was expected to feature student-centered learning, and its research mission was to be central to the country’s and the region’s economic development.

UR’s nature of programs

Academic programs offered at the UR are wide. Some are specialized in nature while others are more interdisciplinary and/or problem-based in focus. UR’s students are either in the country or abroad. And the UR’s students can access educational materials on-campus or from distant places.

Did the UR succeed with its vision?

Speaking with, Dr. Charles Muligande, the former Deputy Vice-Chancellor in charge of Institutional Advancement, said the change benefited the government financially. He gave an example where one teacher could leave the one UR campus and for instance goes to lecture to UR Nyarugenge Campus (former Kigali Institute for Science and Technology) and still asks the same salary.

“No single university or Higher Learning Institution was self-reliant and thus sharing lecturers from one to other university costed the government which they were all working for. However, the same case has never appeared since the establishment of the UR”, Charles Muligande said.

Dr. Charles Muligande insisted UR’s establishment increased lecturers to extent that the team can research on the topic and publish it easily. As of merging Higher Learning Institutions with the UR, Dr. Muligande said the number of Ph.D. holders teaching Agriculture became 15. He added that the quantity and quality of research published multiplied itself almost four times.

Again, seeing the UR as an African leading University was one of expectations. As a result, the University of Rwanda, in 2016, won hosting four regional centers of excellence, under the World Bank- funded African Centers of Excellence. The UR’s six proposals were competing with about other 109 proposals from nine countries. Dr. Muligande said achieving this was a result of collective energy spent by researchers.

By Ernest Ngaboyisonga