The Gambia should have its first university this autumn thanks in part to a small and internationally unknown university on the east coast of Canada.
The university will be built on to three existing tertiary-level institutions through a modest extension programme launched two years ago by St Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Denis Leclaire, the director of international activities at St Mary's, says the as yet unnamed university, expected to open in October, will be a hybrid of North American, European and African universities. "Ultimately it will be the Gambians who will make the decision on how it will look," he said.
The St Mary's extension programme was launched to offer Gambians accessible undergraduate degrees in their country in the wake of political instability in Nigeria and Sierra Leone, the Gambians' traditional training ground. They deem British education too costly.
For two-month sessions, professors from the 7,000-student Canadian university travel to the Gambia to teach at one of the colleges. Five sessions make up the ten-month semester. The Gambian department of education provides scholarships for a majority of the 170 students enrolled now and the 80-100 who will begin in July.
Students will obtain a Canadian bachelor's degree until the transition is complete.
The Gambian government has been successfully building an educational infrastructure since taking power in a bloodless military coup in 1994. Canada has at least 20 years of developmental partnerships with the country, whose per capita gross domestic product in 1995 was a mere Pounds 620.
Much of the Canadian network began in 1982, when Nova Scotia high school principal Burris Devanney took a two-year sabbatical to work at one of the tertiary colleges. The Gambia Technical Training Institute was being established through the help of a programme developed by the University College of Cape Breton, also in Nova Scotia.
Mr Devanney is now director of the Nova Scotia-Gambia Association, a non-governmental agency committed to long-term educational linkage. It has attracted over $CAN2 million (Pounds 875,000) in government and private funds and has been instrumental in bringing other institutions to lend their expertise to the Gambia for programmes such as peer education and agricultural research.
Mr Leclaire says his university, in consultation with the department of education, is now trying to strengthen the administrative structure of the new Gambian university. Working with the Gambians, says the Canadian, is part of what he says is his university's desire to build international contacts for faculty and students, having done the same type of work in Vietnam and China.