Harmonization of Higher Education: The East African Community learns from Europe

Jaynefrances W. Nabawanuka is a third-year PhD student at the Jayne frances NabawanukaUniversity of Georgia, USA, Institute of Higher Education.

She hails from Uganda where she earned her LL.B at Makerere University in 1995. Jayne also holds an LL.M in commercial law from the University of Cape Town in South Africa. In 1996 she earned a Post Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice and was enrolled as an advocate to practice law in Uganda. After several years of practicing law, she joined Makerere University in 1999 as general legal counsel, a position she held until 2007 when she joined the Institute. Her interests are in policy and governance in higher education as well as higher education and the law.

Higher education creates benefits that transcend the individual and as such is increasingly playing a central role in our economies and societies–it fosters economic growth and development. The higher education landscape, the world over, has witnessed profound changes in the last three decades. While academic systems function in a national environment, the challenges play themselves out on a global scale. Globalization is bringing about not only new forms of cross-border provision of higher education, but also prospective liberalization of trade in educational services. As a result, regional compacts are increasingly playing greater roles in the harmonization of higher education systems in their regions. For instance, one of the core goals of the African Union is to transform the African University in a “development university” of excellence, which responds to local needs while at the same time pushes the frontiers of knowledge as a peer in the global knowledge economy (African Union, 2006).

East Africa recognizes the fact that education not only plays a crucial role of enabling a country or region to define its priorities and aspirations, but is also a means through which any nation determines the type of human resource required to facilitate its social and economic development (IUCEA, 2009).  The people of East Africa, by virtue of a common colonial background, have shared in the past a common educational curricula which changed after the break-up of the former East African Community in 1977.  With the re-establishment of the new Community (1999), there is a renewed commitment to ensure that the common goals and aspirations of the peoples of East Africa are realized through a harmonized curriculum (EAC Secretariat, 2009).  The member states identified the harmonization of the education structures and curricula content, standards, and assessment and evaluation of education programs as priority issues. For the East African Community, harmonization of higher education programs is both a tool for fostering political, economic, and cultural integration of the East African countries, and a part of broader processes of the renewal of African education in Africa.

In reviving its higher education system, East Africa draws from the European experiences. In 1999, through the Bologna Declaration, 29 European countries formulated a policy to harmonize European higher education systems and to create a European Higher Education Area (EHEA) in which students can choose from a wide range of high quality programs and benefit from smooth recognition procedures around the region (Bologna Declaration, 1999). The Bologna process put in place a series of reforms imperative to make European higher education more compatible and comparable, more competitive and more attractive for both Europeans and students and scholars from other parts of the world. The three priorities of the Bologna process are: introduction of the three cycle system (bachelor/master/doctorate), quality assurance and recognition of qualifications and periods of study. Steered by European Ministers responsible for higher education, the Bologna process is a collective effort of public authorities, universities, teachers and students, together with stakeholder associations, employers, quality assurance agencies, international organizations and institutions.

In comparison, the East African region has, since the colonial times, been based on the three-cycle model–inherited from the colonial masters. However, because Kenya follows an 8-4-4 system while Tanzania and Uganda follow a 7-4-2-3 system of education, the Bachelors degree in Kenya takes at least four years while the same degree takes at least three years in Uganda and Tanzania as well as in Rwanda and Burundi.  As a result of the differing education systems, public universities in Uganda require that the Kenyan candidates undergo Advanced Secondary (A-level) studies for 2 years while the private universities insist on a 6-9 months bridging course before the candidates can join the institutions. Additionally, in Tanzania, the Kenyan and Ugandan students are required to sit for the Matriculation examination and this has resulted in fewer foreign students going to study in Tanzania.

Efforts started with the curriculum harmonization starting at the grassroots. In a bid to harmonize higher education in the region a Credit Transfer System was established and endorsed by the university accreditation authorities in Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda. Uganda’s National Council for Higher Education, the Commission for Higher Education in Kenya and the Tanzania Commission for Universities agreed to have the teaching of science courses such as medicine, agriculture, engineering and basic
science that will conform to uniform minimum standards. The universities in the region would be required to adhere to the published minimum standards. Students pursuing programs covered by the system will be free to transfer their credits to other institutions within the region. Rwanda and Burundi are expected to join the system in due course. Additionally, in collaboration with the Inter University Council for East Africa, the higher education authorities in the region also developed and established the East African Quality Assurance Framework. Institutions within the region employ the framework to develop individual institutional quality assurance frameworks. The two projects highlighted mark important steps in higher education. The measures introduced so far have not only improved the mobility and
portability of students around the region but also laid the foundation for improved higher education quality and promoted comparability of awards. Moreover, harmonization of standards will also facilitate mobility of academician and researchers within the region.