50 years of higher education in E. Africa

Monday December 14 2020

Makerere University main building. The university served as the first centre of University of East Africa. PHOTO/FILE.

By Desire Mbabaali

The story of the Inter-University Council of East Africa, IUCEA dates back to colonial days when in 1963, the University of East Africa was created as an independent external college of the University of London.   

Prof Mayunga Nkunya, the former executive secretary of IUCEA recalls that the University of East Africa had three colleges: Makerere College in Uganda, University College Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and the Royal College Nairobi in Kenya, each of the colleges specialised in specific academic programmes serving students in East Africa. 

Later, in 1970, however, the University of East Africa was dissolved to create fully fledged universities of Makerere University, University of Dar es Salaam and University of Nairobi. 

“Although the three colleges had been separated, an Inter-University Committee (IUC) under the first East African Community (EAC) was established to maintain collaboration between the three universities,” Prof Nkunya explains. Seven years later in 1977, however, the first EAC collapsed, but the three universities understood the importance of collaboration and so, in 1980, thevice chancellors of the three universities signed a memorandum that transformed IUC into IUCEA. 

“Although a number of challenges such as financing threatened its existence, the council survived and when the East African Community was revived in 1999, IUCEA was eventually taken on as one of the surviving institutions of the EAC,” says Nkunya. 


Prof Mayunga Nkunya the former Executive Secretary of IUCEA. PHOTO / COURTESY.


Achievements over the years
As it celebrates its golden jubilee, the IUCEA has been credited for showing that education has the power to unite people, and independently keep them working together, having been one of the surviving institutions of the EAC even when the first EAC collapsed in 1977. It is also telling of how fundamental education is as we are moving towards an integrated East Africa.

Prof Mike Kuria, the deputy executive secretary, IUCEA notes that another of the institution’s achievements has been the recognition of qualifications awarded from the EA universities. 

“This means that if someone gets a qualification from a university in Uganda, when they go to Kenya to look for a job, their qualification is recognised because they will know that the university is accredited in the EAC and when it is recognised, that helps with the movement of people within the region,” he explains. 

Regional quality assurance 
To ensure the quality of education offered by member universities, the council established a regional quality assurance system that looks at individual programmes offered by the universities, quality of the universities themselves and their accreditation, among others.

“The quality assurance system can also be used to develop or review the curriculum, look at teaching methods, among other things. We obviously cannot bring all universities in the region to the same level, but it is a journey. We are aware that sometimes, there is a disconnect between what is happening in the universities and what the labour market wants, but we are working towards solving that,” Prof Kuria notes.  

Staff mobility and trainings
Among benefits that the staff of member universities enjoy are training and courses covering a wide range of areas. When opportunities for such training are available, the council normally sends out invitations for participation.

Additionally, under its staff exchange programme, staff can move to another institution for a fixed period of time across institutions in partner states.

As Prof Kuria explains, the Staff Exchange Programme is aimed at enhancing sharing of human resources among universities in the EAC, strengthening inter-university cooperation through academic mobility, enhancing quality of teaching and research, all geared to promoting regional integration. 

The programme also provides university institutions with experts and facilities in various fields of study that may be lacking or needing more collaboration with other universities.


The Minister of East African Community Affairs, Maj Gen (Rtd) Kahinda Otafire (front row in the middle) in a group photo with the executive members of the IUCEA during the Golden Jubilee celebrations held at Golf View Hotel in Entebbe last month. IUCEA celebrated 50 years of existence in November mostly virtually. PHOTO /COURTESY.

Fostering a common high education area
“In 2017, the heads of state declared East Africa a common high education area. That declaration raised the bar to the level that we have an education system that speaks to each other. This means that one can do a few courses at Makerere University for example, do a few courses at University of Nairobi, a few others at the university of Dar-es-Salam and come back and graduate at Makerere University,” Prof Kuria explains. This, however, has not been fully realised because perfect operationalisation of it is not yet there, but it is part of where the council aims to go. 

Scholarship programmes 
Under that same arrangement, the Inter- University Council also has an education scholarship programme (KFW-EAC) aimed at enabling students to study in a country other than their own in the EAC.

“This means that the universities already recognise qualifications from other member countries. Although we sometimes have questions from universities regarding the qualifications of the scholars, we want to reach a point where those questions are not there anymore,” Kuria says.

The IUCEA’s governance is made up of the Council of Ministers at the EAC level and the Secretariat at the institutional level which has its offices in Kampala, Uganda.

Major challenges
Speaking on behalf of the Council, Prof Kuria noted that one of the biggest challenges they have faced in the past 50 years is the harmonisation of higher education in the region. 

“We have some declarations and decisions that have been reached but are not anchored on policy. Without policies, we cannot create common standards. Policies need to be in place so that people do not do things because they like them but because the law or policy requires them to do that,” Prof Kuria stresses.  

For example the Council of ministers made a decision that students in the EAC should pay the same fees as nationals, if studying in a country other than their own in the region. However, since it was a declaration and not an official policy, some universities in some EA countries still ask for international fees from students from the EA countries, which undermines the declaration. 

Lessons learnt

First, that change in the world is happening quickly and in enormous leaps and bounds. We, therefore, cannot afford to spend inordinately long periods theorising. Higher education must shift from theory to practice with greater speed than is currently the case in East Africa.

Secondly, there is a need to abandon the old way of doing things and to embrace the new normal. This means adopting new methods of teaching, learning, assessment and certification in the context of the fourth industrial revolution – and possibly coming to terms with a reality in which the bricks and mortar university is facing the beginning of its end.

There is now possibly emerging a critical mass of students who are so used to technology that they will find the idea of being limited in terms of time or geographical space in order to access education positively revolting.

Thirdly, the only constant we can be assured of is change. This means that higher education policy-makers and implementers must be aware that quality assurance practices, standards and guidelines cannot be static.

Fourthly, the sharing of resources no longer needs to be constrained by physical barriers, or even by territorial boundaries. Staff mobility, for example, does not have to be physical. It may be desirable, but it can also be virtual. In short, the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic’s disruption of higher education has to be transformed from cataclysmic to revolutionary.  - Prof Mike Kuria, the deputy executive secretary of the IUCEA.


Higher education in East Africa dates back a little further than 1970 to 1963 when the University of East Africa – now Makerere University – was established in Uganda to serve Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

At the time it was a constituent college of the University of London. In 1970, the University of East Africa was dissolved to make way for the University of Dar es Salaam, the University of Nairobi and Makerere University.

Membership Criteria
To be eligible to IUCEA membership, a university, university colleges, and other degree-awarding institutions have to be:
Registered and recognised by a competent authority to operate in the county where they operate (The country should be a member of the East African Community) and have a functional quality assurance system.

For full membership, a university and other degree-awarding institution should have accreditation by a national accreditation body of the host partner state.