Newly accredited college focuses on transferable skills

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Since its launch in 2004, Kepler has helped countless young Rwandans attend universities in the country. In April 2022, the cabinet accredited Kepler College. Jean d’Amour Mbonyinshuti of University World News (UWN) spoke to Professor Baylie Damtie, vice-chancellor of Kepler College, about the college’s academic focus and programmes as it enters a new phase in its institutional development.

UWNWhat does the cabinet resolution hold for Kepler?

BD: We are excited to offer a new pathway to a transformational career for students through Rwandan accredited academic programmes, starting with a BA degree in project management. Over the next five years, we will open other relevant programmes at the intersection of management, business and technology.

Kepler has been offering impactful support programmes, including foundation skills, contextualised modules and transformational career services through our employer partners to our students who pursue online degree programmes through our partnership with the Southern New Hampshire University [in the United States]. We did not have our own degree programmes.

This accreditation provides us with a new opportunity to scale our impact by developing relevant and quality academic programmes through Kepler College.

UWNKepler offers international degrees through Southern New Hampshire University. How will this be affected?

BD: Kepler will continue supporting students to pursue online degree programmes through our partnership with Southern New Hampshire University. The programmes through Kepler College are another exciting option for our students who want to pursue contextualised programmes tailored to the labour market needs of the region.

We measure success based on graduate employment outcomes and we know that our wraparound programmes for the online degrees like the foundation skills training, contextualised modules and the career services are what make a difference in the employment outcomes of students who pursue online degrees. The academic programmes at Kepler College contain foundation skills and subject-specific and workplace competencies that make our graduates stand out in the labour market.

UWNWe know that Kepler has been supporting vulnerable students such as refugees, students with disabilities, women and others from vulnerable communities. How are you going to accommodate them in the new programmes?

BD: We have a long-term commitment to transforming students from vulnerable communities and our special support programmes will also be available at Kepler College. We will continue our programmes that are designed to remove the barriers to accessing higher education and employment opportunities through innovative bridging programmes and education financing.

The new degree programmes through Kepler College will provide another opportunity to serve more vulnerable students and we are excited to offer them a transformational education experience. Financially speaking, students from vulnerable communities, especially those who cannot afford it, will have two options: signing an income-share agreement through our partners which they pay back when they find employment, and partial or full scholarships.

UWNDoes that mean that you will have to double the number of students?

BD: The number of students we are going to serve will increase through intakes into Kepler College programmes as well as online degree programmes of the Southern New Hampshire University. Our plan is to serve at least 4,000 students in total in the next five years, 2,250 of these through Kepler College programmes. This is a considerable number.

UWNYou said you are planning to start soon with project management and other related courses while other universities have been shifting from non-STEM to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) courses. Why did you choose this direction?

BD: Our programming is mainly driven by the needs of the labour market in our areas of focus. The assessment of the labour market shows that there is a higher demand for graduates with transferable skills, which allow the graduates to work in many sectors as opposed to students with highly specialised knowledge.

In our programming, we integrated STEM courses in a way that is needed in practice. We will incorporate courses from statistics, data science and mathematics in ways that are relevant for project management and other related case studies. This means that STEM is kind of mainstreamed into the main programming.

We also incorporated knowledge and practical skills in computer science to ensure our graduates have digital competence. Also, we plan to open a BSc degree in business analytics in 2023, which will be at the intersection of technology and business through the integration of STEM subjects and business and economics.

Our approach is to crossbreed the subjects to create a programme that follows the labour market needs. That is why we say the Kepler College programme is at the intersection of management, business and technology and through technology we incorporate STEM subjects like data science, computer science, mathematics and statistics that are applicable in the labour market.

UWNIs that a new model?

BD: Well, I think that businesses are leveraging technology in an unprecedented manner and the labour market’s need for skills at the intersection of technology with subject-specific competence is going to increase rapidly.

This means a multidisciplinary approach aiming at producing graduates with transferable skills and technological competence that allow graduates to secure employment in diverse sectors. It is going to be increasingly hard to get a job based on the skills of a specific discipline.

UWNAs you go forward, how do you intend to ensure quality education?

BD: The measure of the quality of education can take different forms. It is helpful to define it from the major needs of the customer. Youth in the region are coming to higher education to change their lives and those of their families, communities and countries. This means employment outcomes are a key measure of success.

At Kepler College, we set a plan that ensures 90% of our graduates get gainful employment within six months after graduation based on our achievements on graduates from the online degrees of the Southern New Hampshire University and our wraparound academic and career support programmes.

Ensuring high-quality services in our input-process-output production line are key drivers of employment outcomes, including qualified and motivated teachers, student-centred learning, reliable competency assessment, up-to-date career services, dynamic and engaging alumni and employer relations.

UWNThat seems overly ambitious. How will you achieve that?

BD: We want the student to acquire two things. One is the skill set and knowledge that are marketable. So, what are the skills and the knowledge that we offer them that the market needs? We check those skill sets and make sure that students have those competencies.

We give them case study projects, not exams, to demonstrate that they can do the work. It comes down to workplace studies. They demonstrate that they can manage different case studies and projects that mimic the kind of work they are going to face when they are in the labour market. We assure you that they have acquired those skill sets.

Number two is the character. Character includes timekeeping, being professional, honest, self-driven, and so on. This is the kind of character we build through our programming by asking students to demonstrate those behaviours when they deliver assignments and projects and when they work together as a team.

As an output, we measure the skill sets they have acquired and the character they built including their marketability. This includes monitoring how many of the internships turned into full-time employment.

UWNHow have you managed to achieve such a high employment rate?

BD: Employment outcomes depend on the labour market needs and how students are prepared for the opportunities. Our competency-based learning approach allowed us to establish an effective pathway for employment. Why do I say that? Our pedagogical approach is facilitating learning instead of lecturing and giving assignments.

We update our courses or modules regularly following the emerging labour market needs through our more than 250 employer partners who have been instrumental in our progress. We have strong career services that provide students with training on career choice, career preparation, job search and internship opportunities.

UWNYou talked about new ways of incorporating STEM in project management. Do you think the way STEM subjects are offered in different universities should be reviewed as well?

BD: I think that the needs of the labour market in the region for graduates of traditional STEM subjects have been met and there are many institutions in the region that have STEM programmes that produce graduates.

If you consider physics, biology, mathematics, and chemistry – these are the traditional STEM subjects. If you ask where the graduates from those subjects go, it is very hard to identify a large market that can absorb thousands of graduates outside teaching jobs. This will change as manufacturing sectors and innovation grow in the region.

Now, these subjects could incorporate courses from technology and entrepreneurship, for example, so that they prepare their students for the labour market, as we are integrating them with project management.

Universities may establish innovative academic programmes by pulling key courses or modules from different subjects to offer competencies that can be marketable. For instance, it may be possible to create impactful programmes by crossbreeding physics with economics.

UWN: Do you collaborate with other universities, including technical universities?

BD: Our innovative graduate employment programme is carried out through an exciting partnership with Rwanda Polytechnic and Tegbared and Nifas Silk Technical and Vocational Colleges in [Addis Ababa in] Ethiopia. Kepler is offering soft-skills training to boost the employability of the graduates in partnership with their teaching staff and career services.

We have also signed a memorandum of understanding with the Job Creation Commission of Ethiopia to scale our services to graduates from universities and TVET (technical vocational education and training) schools across the nation. We are also members of the East African Hub of the Education Collaborative at Ashesi University in Ghana and are partnering with universities from Kenya and Uganda on sharing best practices for wider impact.

UWNWill you employ more staff at Kepler College?

BD: As we increase our academic programmes, the number of staff at the college will increase. This will create job opportunities. However, our focus is on ensuring employment for thousands of graduates from our diverse programme.

UWNHow gender-inclusive is Kepler?

BD: Diversity, equity, and inclusion [DEI] are one of the core values of Kepler and it is critical for us. In all our programming and in all the things that we do, we ensure our DEI policies are enforced and we have assigned a DEI manager who follows the work daily, making sure that we align across our teams.

For instance, admission is set at 50% women and 50% men, and this is a commitment that we fulfil in every admission. And then, in terms of admission of students from the vulnerable communities, 30% of students come from refugee and vulnerable communities and people with disability. That is also a fixed number.

Our classes and facilities are designed in such a way that they are not a barrier to people with disabilities and accommodate various needs. We also have what we call a special support and guidance programme to eliminate barriers.

UWNHow affordable is Kepler College?

BD: We are non-profit, and our fees are cost recovery to ensure that we are sustainable and continue providing youth innovative pathways to employment. Financial inclusion, which is the core guiding principle of Kepler, will also guide the operation of Kepler College. We want to make sure that no one is left behind due to financial barriers.

Kepler College provides a choice to students about how they want to finance their education. If students choose to finance their education by paying the college upfront, they are welcome to do that. If students cannot afford it, they can just come to us and sign an income-share agreement. We can provide them with laptops and stipends, but they must pay this back when they get a job. If they don’t get jobs, they don’t need to pay.

Income-sharing is an ethical education financing model whereby students are supported to get quality education and get jobs and then they pay back so that we can be sustainable in providing this opportunity to others.

UWNHow do you select students?

BD: We have basic requirements. The first thing is that they must meet the entrance requirements of the Rwanda Higher Education Council. Secondly, we have our Kepler admission requirements that determine students’ English, numerical and cognitive skills.

Higher learning has been challenged in the region and worldwide. On the one hand, there are young people, many of them, who come knocking on the doors of institutions to join higher education. On the other hand, there are those who have graduated and are facing the challenge of getting gainful employment.

At the same time, employers are complaining about the lack of skills and good character among graduates. Parents are looking for the best schools to send their children to. Stakeholders have started paying attention to this paradox and are showing interest in investing in the future of youth in Africa.

We are very excited at Kepler College to start a new approach to this challenge. Our model is learning by doing and students are empowered to carry out case studies or projects, a transformational educational experience.