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East African Community primed to become harmonised HE region

University students from the East African region will be able to transfer credits from one university to another within the five member states of the East African Community from February, if the region’s heads of state endorse a plan to create a common higher education area.

If the credit transfer system passes, students will be able to move among more than 100 public and private universities in the East African Community. Photo: Henri Bergius.

Burundi could provide the highest and the biggest source of students seeking education across borders due to its political instability

Under the proposal presented in a harmonisation document by the community’s higher education body, the Inter-University Council of East Africa, and already approved by education ministers of the trading bloc, students will be able to move from any of the more than 100 public and private universities in the region at any stage of learning, without having to sit a special entry examination.

The community, with an estimated population of 150 million citizens, consists of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi and is in the process of admitting a new member, Africa’s youngest state, South Sudan.

“Student mobility will be made seamless enabling learners to move from one institution to the other at will”

“Under the proposed harmonised higher education framework, student mobility will be made seamless enabling learners to move from one institution to the other at will,” said Cosam Chawanga, IUCEA’s head of quality assurance.

Universities in the region will recognise qualifications from any chartered university and from every programme accredited by individual higher education authorities in the countries of origin, said Chawanga.

The creation of a common higher education region was slated to have been completed in 2016 but bureaucratic procedures delayed the process, the officer noted.

Last December though, education ministers met in Arusha, Tanzania, the bloc’s headquarters, and approved the proposed harmonisation document ahead of February’s heads of state summit that is expected to ratify the plan.

“Having met all the procedural and legal requirements in development of the plan and in-line with the protocols of the East African Community, it would be safe to expect that heads of state will endorse the proposal and make the EAC a common higher education region,” Nairobi-based lawyer Soyinka Lempaa told The PIE News.

Obstacles though could arise and impede full realisation of the plan due to language barriers with one of the smallest member countries in the community, Burundi – a country that has been engulfed in political turmoil over the past four years.

Burundi, unlike the rest of the members, uses French as its official language as opposed to English, which could hinder it from fully taking advantage of a harmonised system.

“The country is experiencing political turmoil and thousands of students have fled persecution,” observed Patrick Mbataru, lecturer at Kenyatta University in Nairobi. “Sadly they may not be able to take advantage of the plan due to lack of proficiency of the English language which is used to teach in all the region’s universities.”

He noted, however, that Burundi could provide the highest and the biggest source of students seeking education across borders due to its political instability, but such students would have to first study English language at an extra cost and time.

Already the tiny nation has an estimated 2,000 student refugees who could benefit from mobility within the region according to the United Nations Higher Commission September 2016 figures.

“It would be safe to expect that heads of state will endorse the proposal and make the EAC a common higher education region”

While students in the common area do seek university education across borders, mobility has been low because of the lack of a credit transfer framework.

Kenya is the leading destination for mobile students in the community mainly due to its popular private universities which offer relatively sound and internationally acclaimed programmes.

Institutions including the United States International University, Catholic University of Eastern Africa and Strathmore University, host more than 3,000 foreign students from the region and beyond.

Also in the league is Uganda, whose private institutions attract thousands of foreign students each year due to relatively low tuition fees.

Public institutions in the community are unlikely to benefit from the system as much due to lower funding from the state which has curtailed their capacity to accommodate rising numbers of learners.

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