Hi all. I’ve been in Dakar, Senegal this past week, developing a student program here. Here’s a quick snapshot of the place:
Senegal is home to francophone Africa’s oldest university, l’Universite Cheikh Anta Diop (UCAD), sometimes known simply as the University of Dakar. It’s one of the few institutions on the continent that predates independence. For a very long time, it was the country’s only university – francophone African countries were slower to expand higher education opportunities than anglophone, for reasons I’ll get into shortly – and, in fact, it still accounts for about 90% of enrolments in the public system, and essentially 100% of its prestige programs.
As in most of Africa, Senegal started allowing private universities to operate in the early 1990s. For a long time, these were few and small. But then, in the past decade, their numbers shot up, from about 30 in 2000 to around 110 in 2010. A handful of these – mostly management schools – had the scale to offer quality education, but with an average enrolment of 200 students, the sector as a whole struggles.
The reason francophone Africa was so slow to expand higher education is that national governments couldn’t afford it. That’s not just because they were poor, but also because the prevailing model involved zero tuition, bursaries for (nearly) all, plus free/subsidized meals and accommodations. The only way to keep costs down was to slam tight the lid on student numbers. That was workable until the 80s baby boom started hitting universities fifteen years ago (hence the surge in private university numbers). It made even less sense once the effects of universal primary and universal secondary education began to be felt, and the number of university-eligible students grew.
At this point, some bright light in government decided that the way to deal with this problem was to guarantee university education to everyone with a baccalauréat (the French kind, the one you get after high school). Financially, this made so little sense that a series of hasty moves were made: tuition fees were implemented – with undergraduates now asked to pay $60/year, master’s students $120, and doctoral students $180. (For comparison, the privates tend to charge between $1,750 and $2,250/year in fees.) This provoked a couple of weeks of riots and some burned mini-buses, but the government held firm, and eventually the students paid up and went back to class – although this turned out to be a problem because, with the bacc guarantee, there were now far too many students. UCAD, bursting at the seams, could accept only about 70% of the required students.
This led the Senegalese government to an innovative policy solution: namely, taking 6600 first year students, and paying the better private schools to educate them. In the short-term, this works for everyone: UCAD gets some relief in student numbers, privates get some extra money, and government gets to keep its promise. But with first year student numbers projected to increase by 10-15% per year as far as the eye can see, it’s at best a temporary solution.
The Senegalese government has finally discovered that la gratuité n’est pas rentable. Future expansion is going to mean more students paying more money, in both the public and private sectors. Given its status as a regional leader in higher education, it could herald the start of major change in higher education policy right across francophone Africa.