Philip Cotton — The Birth of The University of Rwanda

(One of the buildings of the former Kigali Institute of Science and Technology, now part of the University of Rwanda, photo by Lukas Corey)

LC: So can you tell us a little about the University of Rwanda? 

PC: Yeah, I can tell you about UR. I’m the CEO of the University, the Vice Chancellor is the same as the President of the University. We have a Chancellor who is purely ceremonial and comes once a year to graduation, and our current Chancellor is the Executive Vice President of Tufts University, a wonderful woman named Patricia Campbell. 

So in September 2013 the University became a legal institute, which meant that all the former public universities ceased to exist. At that time, we merged the seven public universities to create the University of Rwanda. There was a task team working for six months to create the University of Rwanda, writing the laws and some of the early protocols. So we took the seven public universities and seven other higher learning institutions, they were generally sub-degree awarding bodies, and we are now the merger of 14 public institutions. At that time we had inherited 16 campuses around the country, we are now down to 10, and we have a community of about 30 thousand. At UR we educate about half of all the people in higher education in the country. The other students in higher education go to private universities, and there’s more than thirty private universities. 

One of the imperatives for merging the universities was around quality. We had seven public universities all funded by the same government, and there were variations in quality that went from the level and ranking of academics right through to other aspects. Over the years, they had opened up management and other programs leading to a lot of duplication. They were using the same pot of public money to pay for duplications of administrations and programs. One university was much more comprehensive, and that was the National University of Rwanda. There were other higher institutions such as the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology, so when we merged the institutions we took the medical school from the National University of Rwanda and public health programs from the Kigali Health Institute and we brought them together to create a College of Medicine and Health Sciences. So the University of Rwanda when it came into being had six colleges–the College of Arts and Social Sciences; the College of Agriculture, Animal Sciences, and Veterinary Medicine; the College of Business and Economics; the College of Education; the College of Medicine and Health Sciences; and the College of Science and Technology. At that time I became head of the College of Medicine and Health Sciences. 

So the structure of the university includes four Deputy Vice Chancellors and Six College Principals, one for each school, and within each school you have departments. There is still a bit of overlap. We teach biology and botany and zoology in the College of Science and Technology and in the College of Agriculture, Animal Sciences, and Veterinary Medicine they also teach substantial parts of biology and zoology. What we are trying to do is realize ourselves as one institution. I guess what was happening in the former institution was that, if the college of animal husbandry wanted to teach biology or another course they couldn’t teach themselves, then they would have to have an MOU with the Kigali Institute of Science and Tech to get a lecturer to come across and pay that lecturer and we stopped all of that when we merged the institutions. So issues of quality and issues of money were dominant at the time and there was also very much a belief and still a belief that we can do much better together. And now we are ranked number two in east africa based on normalized citation index. So we aren’t doing too badly and that’s been six years. Does that help? 

Yeah, absolutely. So has the merger led to more financial effectiveness and less cost for the government overall as it was intended to. 

I would say that we are still on a journey in that regard. You imagine any institution, their largest bill is going to be salaries. So when we merged the institutions, we took all of the staff. So our biggest spend is still the salary budget, that’s about 65 percent of our budget. That hasn’t changed. So people in administrative roles get horizontal promotions based on their performance, so our salary bill has actually gone up. With regard to administration, there has been some slimming down of the administrative staff. There have also been some savings, certainly shaving some facilities and removing duplication programs. We developed a costing model with the ministry of finance so we know the cost of every day in the education of a medical student for example. So the government is now giving us more money than it gave the public institutions before. And that’s in part because the government, unlike most other governments around the world, values higher education for everything that it is, and it also believes that quality education costs money. So we have made savings in the places where we think money was perhaps not being used effectively, but we have been able to make the case for a larger amount of money coming to the university. 

I was also wondering if the decrease in the number of campuses with the removal of duplicate programs have left certain students or areas stranded. Was there a way to accommodate them? I imagine if there was previously a school in a rural area where a student could access it but that college was moved to a new area, the student may have trouble accessing the school now. 

So I can give you an example with two campuses like Kibungo and Giyumbo. They were nursing schools, so what we did was we amalgamated all of the nurse training. So people had to move campuses. Of course they did not attend that campus to study nursing because they came from that area. If you were studying at Kibungo, you were paying for your accommodations at Kibungo, so it just meant that at the end of that academic year you moved to another campus and started. So we made a commitment in the new university to making sure that people did have access. One of the areas of open access was to develop online curriculum, but also to ensure that people living with disabilities have access, and also ensuring that girls and women have access to education. If you look at our enrollment this year in the college of medicine, of one hundred students fifty of them are girls. We’re beginning to challenge the phenomenon you see in many global south universities. 

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