Pioneering Health Sciences University Opens Permanent Campus in Rural Rwanda

His Excellency Paul Kagame, President of the Republic of Rwanda, and Partners In Health co-Founder Dr. Paul Farmer inaugurate UGHE’s Butaro Campus with a ceremonious ribbon cutting. Photo by Illume Creative Studio for UGHE

Butaro, Rwanda (January 25, 2019) – Amid a growing number of global health crises-from Ebola to rapidly rising cancer rates-and a shortage of health professionals disproportionately affecting the world’s poorest, Partners In Health and the Government of Rwanda gathered today to open the brand-new campus for a health sciences university in northern Rwanda. The 100-hectare, hilltop campus will contribute to the training of a new generation of global health leaders to deliver high-quality health care in some of the world’s most remote and resource-poor settings. 

A campus not just about graduating doctors and nurses

With catalytic funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Cummings Foundation, the University of Global Health Equity (UGHE) began as a response to the health inequities that exist in global health-particularly in Africa, which accounts for roughly 24 percent of the global disease burden, but only 3 percent of the world’s health workforce. Increasing the number of doctors and nurses is crucial, UGHE leaders say. 

But it isn’t the only goal. Central to the curriculum for all UGHE students will be its flagship master’s program. The Master of Science in Global Health Delivery (MGHD) focuses on leadership and management training, as well as how health delivery is shaped by societal and environmental forces. 

“Our next generation of doctors and nurses can’t just focus on diagnosing and treating symptoms. They must understand the systems that drive social determinants of health, have the skills to strategically take initiative, and find solutions to barriers to service delivery” said Dr. Agnes Binagwaho, the University’s Vice Chancellor. “In other words, if an HIV patient has to travel 20 kilometers without reliable and affordable transport to get his or her medicine, it can’t be enough to insist that patient takes the pills on time. That’s why our curriculum aims to turn health professionals into leaders and managers who have the skills and passion to address injustices all over the world.”

Central to UGHE’s curriculum is also the hands-on experience that comes with working in a rural setting. UGHE’s campus is located in Burera District, a region of farms and towns about 80 miles north of the nation’s capital of Kigali.

After the University receives accreditation by the Rwandan authorities, students of the six-and-a-half-year Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery/Master of Science in Global Health Delivery (MBBS/MGHD) program, a bachelor’s level medical degree coupled with a master’s level global health degree, will live and attend classes on campus, and train at nearby Butaro District Hospital and other Inshuti Mu Buzima-supported facilities. 

“It’s no accident that our campus is not in an urban city-center,” said Dr. Paul Farmer, Chief Strategist of Partners In Health and University Professor at Harvard Medical School. “We want our students to understand what it’s like to deliver care in rural settings, yes, but more importantly to look beyond what they can learn in the classroom and the clinic. Some of the key lessons learned in the delivery of equitable care have been learned right here in rural Rwanda, and some of these lessons are broadly applicable in cities and many disparate settings.”

Dr. Farmer added, “The students who study here will be encouraged to learn clinical skills while also learning how to think about the world beyond the hospital. If we’re ever going to see a world where every person, no matter who they are, receives quality health care, we need to transform the way we think about training our future leaders. Opening this beautiful, state-of-the-art campus today in Butaro signals our commitment to improving care delivery not only in this region but across the world.”

Until now, UGHE held classes for a part-time MGHD at its Kigali city campus. The program, launched in 2015, is modeled after one at Harvard Medical School and hosts professionals and educators from across academia and global health. Students came primarily from East, Central, and Southern Africa, but also from countries around the world. In 2018, 300 prospective students applied for 24 spots.  

The new six-building campus in Burera District will help UGHE expand its course offerings over the next several years to meet the high demand. A full-time, one-year MGHD was launched in September. And, after being fully accredited according to Rwandan and international standards, UGHE will launch its MBBS/MGHD program. 

Equity in admissions, equity in delivery

Candidates for UGHE programs will be actively recruited from Rwanda, the region, and globally, and recruitment will seek out opportunities for the unprivileged and poor. Currently, nearly 100 percent of UGHE students receive financial support from the University. 

“We believe strongly that equity in admissions will translate into a more equitable health system that benefits communities in most need,” said Professor Abebe Bekele, founding Dean of UGHE. “If we don’t seek out and train health professionals from these underserved communities, we’ll continue to see gross inequalities in health services. And anyone with the heart, the brain, and the hands to become a doctor-in that order-should be provided with the opportunity to become one.” 

Currently, all enrollees in the MGHD receive scholarships. The average award covers $49,000 of the $54,000 charge for tuition, room, and board.  

A celebration of collaboration

The inauguration today crowned a massive collaborative effort. Roughly 1,000 local masons, carpenters, and plumbers built the campus in two years, using regionally-sourced construction materials. It includes apartments and dorms for up to 200 students and staff, a dining hall, and six academic buildings.

Though UGHE is a private institution, the Government of Rwanda played an important role in its development. In addition to providing financial resources and donating the land that UGHE is situated on, the Government of Rwanda has paved roads that link Butaro, Musanze, and Kigali, and increased access to water, electricity, and internet connectivity throughout the region.

Rwanda is well-known for prioritizing health care. The Ministry of Health has more than halved maternal and child mortality in the last decade, can boast of childhood vaccination rates among the best in the world, and has achieved near-universal health coverage.  

The January 25 inauguration featured Rwandan government leaders, UGHE Vice Chancellor Dr. Agnes Binagwaho and Founding Dean Professor Abebe Bekele; Partners In Health Co-founder Dr. Paul Farmer and CEO Dr. Gary Gottlieb; Executive Director of Inshuti Mu Buzima Dr. Joel Mubiligi; Vice Chancellor of the University of Rwanda, Professor Phil Cotton; Harvard Medical School Dean George Q. Daley; Director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins; Director of the National Institutes of Health’s Fogarty International Center, Dr. Roger Glass; Stanford University Senior Associate Vice Provost Dr. Charles Prober; Tufts University President Dr. Tony Monaco and Provost and Senior Vice President ad interim Dr. Deborah Kochevar; University of Hong Kong Dean Gabriel Leung; President of the US National Academy of Medicine, Dr. Victor Dzau; local and international philanthropists Joyce and Bill Cummings; representatives of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; and other dignitaries.