Violent protests roused by tough cuts

November 4, 1994

As the new academic year begins in West Africa, some francophone countries are determined to see through unpopular university reforms, repeatedly postponed in the past because of student and staff opposition.

The region's flagship University of Dakar in Senegal is currently enrolling students on a tough new basis, while the army patrols the campus of the University of Benin to prevent violent protest against the new measures.

For years, the countries of the region have known they cannot sustain the model of free higher education, generous academic salaries and student grants introduced after independence.

But cuts led to fierce protest from students, all the more desperate to defend their prerogatives because structural adjustment programmes imposed by the International Monetary Fund ended guaranteed civil service jobs.

Academics also held strikes over curbs on pay and loss of benefits. University teachers in Cameroon have sustained a not untypical two-thirds salary cut in two years.

Nowhere is the crisis hitting higher education harder than in the former French colonies, the countries of the CFA franc zone, where devaluation at the start of this year brought long-festering problems to a head.

Moreover, university reforms are, political dynamite in those CFA countries whose fledgling democracies the students helped bring about.

In Benin, in Ivory Coast, in Niger and Mali, students who forced through political reform -- in some cases helping oust military dictators -- ironically now face austerity measures the old political leaders did not dare to impose.

Protracted student strikes led to the first complete cancellation of the 1993/94 academic year at the University of Dakar and in the three main faculties of the University of Benin.

Previous annulments of academic years did not entail any loss of course places. This time, students who had already repeated a year are not being taken back.

Dakar University plans to trim its 24,000 student population down to 15,000, part of a World Bank-funded programme for a leaner, more selective higher education system.

"At first, reform was opposed; we called for a national debate on the issues and financed a fact-finding mission. it took Senegal three years to reach consensus on what to do," explained World Bank official Etienne Baranshamaje.

The university acknowledged educational standards were collapsing under the strain of diminishing resources and inflated student numbers.

When unions opposed the reform package, the university evacuated student dormitories and began re-enrolment on strict criteria. For the first time, academic pay is cut immediately a strike begins.

The academic teaching load has been increased 50 per cent, research travel is on merit, and campus cafeterias have been privatised. The World Bank would like to see fees introduced for parents who can afford it.

"The rich pay for their children to study in France or Canada, surely it's better to improve standards and have them pay to study at home," argued Mr Baranshamaje.

In Benin, fees are not on the agenda, but grant cuts are being bitterly opposed by students who lost 18 months' education during the political turmoil which preceded the departure of president Mathieu Kerekou.

Formerly, students could theoretically spend up to nine years living on grants -- three in each main faculty. Now the grants have been cut and only one repeat year permitted.

The students, infuriated at this turn of events under democracy, are trying to get school students to join their protest movement.

Benin's authorities say the measures are needed to meet World Bank specifications. As in neighbouring countries, education spending is being redirected towards basic schooling and literacy programmes.

"We must go back to the old policy from colonial times of centres of excellence for the whole region. Universities must specialise," said Leopold Fakambi, chief advisor at Benin's ministry of education.

Clearly, none of the region's universities can sustain excellence in all disciplines and all are trying to cut student numbers.

In Ivory Coast, a drop in student intake has followed catastrophic baccalaureate results. When the 86 per cent failure rate was announced in July, the banned student union Fesci called it "intellectual genocide" and blamed the IMF for the "blatant policy" of reducing student numbers.

Mali, which used to spend 70 per cent of its higher education budget on student grants, has imposed cuts and tied grants to academic results.

Last term, furious students in Mali's capital Bamako, many of whom had helped throw out the dictator Moussa Traore, attacked French and Canadian offices.

They blame those countries for the CFA devaluation and for allegedly backing the new democratic government's tough stand.

In Gabon and Benin, university rectors have been attacked in protests over grant cuts. Throughout the region, governments hesitate to push austerity measures through.

"What we cannot say is that the independence dream is over; that we cannot afford to produce educated malcontents without job prospects. We have to go back to a small, elite institutions to educate the few we can employ," commented one education official.

Many of the educated malcontents know only too well that the dream is over. In Cameroon, where 20,000 civil service jobs have been axed, graduates are becoming street vendors. University enrolment fees have gone up from 3,000 to 50,000 CFA francs, grants have disappeared and academic pay, a third of its former rate, is worth only one-sixth abroad, after the CFA devaluation.

At a meeting of francophone higher education ministers in Paris last month, West Africans compared notes. In the effort to shore up academic standards, all are trying to limit the length of students studies, few have dared try major increases in enrolment fees.

The francophone agency for higher education and research, Aupelf, has tried to cushion the blow of CFA devaluation and is taking measures to improve standards in universities whose degrees are increasingly spurned abroad.

Aupelf's own publications are sold half-price in CFA countries, the French government provides free postage for educational materials, but devaluation makes a huge dent in university acquisitions.

Aupelf, funded mainly by France and Canada, has set up a regional PhD school of tropical medicine in Gabon. it is also funding research awards, to encourage specialists to stay in the region.

Such efforts are dismissed as attempts to engineer change artificially by the World Bank, which preaches market forces and free competition at the region's educational institutions.

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