The co-founder of sub-Saharan Africa’s “first online-only university” has described how she has had to “change mindsets” about Uganda’s higher education system.
Deirdre Carabine, director of programmes at the Virtual University of Uganda, said that students at the institution are truly global, coming from countries as far apart as England and the Philippines, but she admitted that when the university launched in 2012 she “had a lot of work to do” around building its reputation because Uganda had a “quite backwards” education sector.
For example, she said that its universities were plagued by “yellow notes syndrome”, the practice of students regurgitating notes from lectures in their exams.
She said she hopes that the not-for-profit private institution will now be considered the “premier choice” for prospective postgraduate students from across the region, as it is “standing at the cusp of a very serious revolution in higher education”.
The university, which targets young professionals with five years’ business experience and is licensed by the Uganda National Council for Higher Education, opened in January 2012, just months before massive open online course (Mooc) providers Coursera, Udacity, edX and FutureLearn launched. The availability of free online education has continued to increase since then, with most higher education institutions offering online learning as part of their degrees.
However, Professor Carabine is not concerned by the competition. She believes that as “pioneers in the field”, the Virtual University of Uganda will attract some of the world’s top students and academics.
She added that while most universities have incorporated online learning as a small part of their offering, the Virtual University of Uganda, which currently has 72 students, is one of the only universities to have “started online”.
Each student must complete 10 modules, each of which runs for two months, in order to gain a postgraduate diploma, in subjects such as public health and business administration. Most students complete the programme in two years, and they must finish it within three to graduate.
Michel Lejeune, vice-chancellor of the university, said that this model means that students can join at any time throughout the academic year, as “no module is a prerequisite to another module”.
Those who achieve an average mark of at least 60 per cent across the modules are eligible to proceed to a master’s degree, which costs the equivalent of about £1,430 in tuition fees, said Professor Carabine, and the university also runs PhD programmes.
Dr Lejeune said that unlike other so-called online universities, the Virtual University of Uganda is “totally online, from the moment of registration to the moment of graduation”.
“We don’t want to force non-Ugandans to come to Uganda for at least two or three weeks every year – that is extremely expensive,” he said.
Another “great advantage”, he continued, is that he can “choose our staff from all over the world”, with the university currently recruiting faculty from about eight countries. The teaching staff are based primarily at other institutions and work for a “small honorarium”, said Professor Carabine, although local and regional staff are given “decent salaries”.
Professor Carabine added that a “big aim” for the university is to assist other institutions in the region to “make the transition to digital teaching and learning formats”.
“If we can do that for three or four universities, we would consider ourselves to be successful,” she said.