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Prof Tirima calls for Reforms in Higher Education

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Why the Vice Chancellor of Cavendish University Uganda, is advocating for student-centered teaching & learning using a problem-based learning with a local touch

 By Bonface Otieno Kanyamwaya

 In January 2016, Cavendish University Uganda received a new Vice Chancellor. Prof Koi Muchira Tirima, a soft-spoken and jovial looking educator, took over as the Vice Chancellor of the eight-year-old private university. She came complete with a development agenda aligned to the university’s Mission and Vision of the relatively young institution.

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Cavendish University Uganda was established and licensed in June 2008 by the National Council of Higher Education (NCHE) to operate in Uganda. Since then, Cavendish University has grown to serve students from the entire East African and larger African region.

As the new VC of CUU, Prof Tirima has articulated her Vision and strategy for developing the institution, both in the short term and long term.

In the short term, she says Cavendish University will ensures that it meets all regulatory compliance requirements laid out by the NCHE, Uganda’s higher education watchdog, relevant professional bodies & the State regulatory like NSSF and URA.  These efforts have paid off, this year Cavendish University has been acknowledged as being one of the best contributors of NSSF and one of the best tax payers.

In addition to ensuring that Cavendish University is a not only a university that trains good citizens and itself exhibit the characteristics of good corporate citizenship, Prof Tirima is focusing the university to provide the best market responsive quality education possible.  This means restructuring the program offerings.

“By restructuring I mean we reduced the number of diploma and degree programmes previously offered at the institution from 104 to 43 accredited programs in order to ensure that we are offering students the best possible learning experiences” says Prof Tirima.

Improving the quality of learning in Cavendish University is one of the professor’s top priorities, and she is already putting in place robust quality assurance measures for the institution.

We are making sure that our faculty members understand what global best practices for teaching are for each discipline and also introducing performance indicators to monitor what faculty members are doing or should be doing.  This includes enhancing what the faculty members are already doing well, which is informed by an appreciative inquiry approach to quality assurance and quality enhancement.

“I feel so sad when a student gets an ‘A’ plain in Mathematics but cannot even balance a scale in real life. We have not allowed our children to become critical thinkers,” says Prof Tirima. “Just looking at the current education system in East Africa, you will realize that it is a great system. I am a product of this system and it made me who I am today. The challenge we seem to have with it at the moment is in the implementation to produce students and graduates who are market-ready, meaning that they can apply what they learned to not only make a living but improve their communities; to become great citizens.”

High hopes in problem-based learning

 The VC of Cavendish University advocates for problem-based learning as one of the solutions to the dwindling quality of higher education in the East Africa region.  Problem Based Learning is one of the teaching and learning methods that will allow the current system and students in particular to re-construct the role of education in achieving economic, social and personal development.

“Problem-based learning (PBL) allows students to be in control of their learning, which is the best motivation. PBL is rooted in the human value of curiosity which we educators term ‘inquiry based learning’; starting each learning experience with a relevant real-life question.  In most cases, in problem based learning, students end up unearthing more information than they would get in the syllabus and learning how to use that information to address real problems in communities and industry.” says Prof Tirima.

Problem-based education, she adds, equips students with critical skills such as asking the right questions, finding the appropriate information and applying that information to solve a problem for the best possible answer.  These are the skills of the 21 Centaury; not memorization and cramming which are irrelevant in a knowledge age! The ability to ask the right questions is key to creative thinking, innovation and enterprise.  According to Prof Koi, Cavendish University’s goal is to deliver this kind of quality and practical learning experience that will make Cavendish University students, staff and graduates game-changers in this market and in the regional and global economies.

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As of last month, Cavendish University had about 2,500 students enrolled in various programmes. They are targeting about 5,000 students by August 2017.

The VC says they are working round the clock to increase the number of students at the institution as they strive to contribute significantly in producing quality human resource for the region’s labour market, which is in line with the vision of giving access to a quality education that produces knowledgeable, skilled and competent citizens.

“We want to have an opportunity to serve a lot more students than we are serving currently and we are not only looking at increasing our market share, but also to have a positive impact on industry. The impact we seek is not simply to increase your market share, but to do so while producing game changes.  Our goal is to produce many game changers and therefore become the institution of choice” says Prof Tirima.

During its fifth graduation ceremony, held in November 2015 in Munyonyo, the institution graduated 1,000 students and expects to graduate about 1,500 students this academic year.

Prof   Koi Muchira Tirima, Vice Chancellor, Cavendish University of Uganda
Prof Koi Muchira Tirima, Vice Chancellor, Cavendish University of Uganda

Unavoidable challenges

One of the biggest challenges facing Cavendish University is how to give access to a quality education at a reasonable price.

“It’s about balancing academic quality in teaching, learning and facilities without making it too expensive for students and their guardians. We want to keep our fees competitive so that we are not blocking out many students who would wish to join Cavendish University. Our goal here is to give access to a quality education to as many students as possible,” says Prof Tirima.

Secondly, a good number of students admitted from secondary schools, especially from Uganda have challenges with critical thinking, critical reading and articulation in writing & speaking at a globally competitive standard.

“If we are unable to raise the kind of workers that our economies need now and in the future, we will be forced to hire consultants from other nations,” says Prof Tirima.  “So it behooves us to raise the standards of thinking, writing and analysis in order to produce the kinds of workers who will take this continent to the greatness that our Pan-African forefathers spoke of and wrote about.”

Going forward, she believes that Cavendish University is going to be a game changer in as far as higher education training is concerned in East Africa.

“I love education. I want to change something. I want to be part of the reform in how and why we teach,” says the VC who doubles as a mother and role model to the girl child as she navigates life to achieve her goals.

Prior to joining Cavendish University, Prof Tirima was the Director of Centre for Research, Training and Learning (CRTL) before becoming the Vice Chancellor at Inoorero University. She has also worked at African Nazarene University as the Director of Institute for Research, Development and Policy and at Kenya Methodist University. Prior to that, Prof Tirima taught at universities in the USA for close to 13 years, where she was recognized for the teaching and leadership skills, before returning home.

Far from managing universities and besides being an educator, Prof Tirima is also a researcher, consultant, and trainer. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in English from Washington State University, a Master’s degree in Teaching English as a Second Language, from the University of Idaho in Moscow, and a Doctorate in Education from the same university.

Her extensive experience in developing programmes for specific populations including youth, adult learners, professional educators, corporations, institutes of education and rural community development organizations makes her just the right leader to steer Cavendish University to the next level

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