CAMEROON: New university part of tertiary reforms

The latest of Cameroon's public universities opens this month at a temporary site while construction work continues on its main campus. The University of Maroua was created by a presidential decree on 9 August and is located in the city of Maroua in Far North Province. It represents the continuation of a process of decentralising the country's public university system away from the capital Yaoundé under higher education reforms that began in 1993.

The university will start with 13 academic departments across a wide range of disciplines, an Advanced Teacher's College (Ecole Normale Superieure), and an Advanced Institute of the Sahel (Institut Superieur du Sahel) involved in teaching and research in the areas of solar energy, wind power, dairy culture and climatology.

The new university expects to enrol 2,000 students in its first year and is currently recruiting 55 academics to fill positions available. Maroua brings to seven the number of public universities in Cameroon under higher education reforms that have led to the splitting of the main University of Yaoundé - long the country's only state university - into two institutions and the conversion of its various regional campuses into a group of autonomous universities:

- University of Buea: Buea, South West Province
- University of Dschang: Dschang, West Province
- University of Douala: Douala, Littoral Province
- University of Ngaoundere: Ngaoundere, Adamawa Province
- University of Yaoundé I: Yaoundé, Centre Province
- University of Yaoundé II: Soa, Centre Province

Yaoundé was founded in 1962 as the Federal University of Cameroon. Before the 1993 reforms, it was experiencing an explosion in student demand and had a student population of more than 30,000 on a campus built to accommodate less than half that number.

The overcrowding that resulted from inadequate infrastructure, lack of physical space for campus expansion and a restive student population, informed the need for decentralisation.

Another important innovation in the Higher Education Reform Law of 1993 accorded recognition to private initiatives in providing higher education up to degree level. The following privately owned universities are now operating in Cameroon:

- Bamenda University of Science and Technology: Bamenda, North West Province
- Catholic University of Central Africa: Yaounde, Centre Province
- Cosendai Adventist University: Nanga Eboko, Centre Province
- Universite d'Élat: Ebolowa, South Province
- Universite des Montagnes (Highlands University): Bangangte, West Province
- Universite de Yaoundé Sud Ndi Samba: Yaoundé, Centre Province

Despite the creation of more universities, both public and private, the challenge of meeting the higher education demands of degree-eligible students remains daunting.

It is government policy that access to education at all levels is the inalienable right of every citizen with the basic qualification. As a result, more than 42,000 students seek entry every year into higher education - more than 95% of them into public universities.

But, of all public institutions, only the University of Buea has a screening system of admission into all departments because it is based on the Anglo-Saxon system. Other state universities, largely modelled on the French system, have an open admission policy for qualified students while using competitive examinations to limit entry to specialised schools offering professional programmes in agriculture, business studies, engineering, food technology, medicine, pharmacy, mass communication and teacher training.

State funding for public universities is grossly inadequate in relation to the rising demand. In 2006, government expenditure on tertiary education represented only 11% of its overall spending on education.

Since 1993, Cameroonian students in public universities have paid only nominal registration fees not considered tuition. Although the fees constitute 25% of the higher education budget, they are dismally inadequate to fund expansion of university infrastructure and services. The problems of congestion and inadequate facilities for teaching and research that fuelled the need for decentralisation of the university system in 1993 have resurfaced.

Meanwhile, drastic cuts in salaries have severely limited the ability of public universities to attract and retain quality staff. The teacher:student ratio at universities stands at 1:49 and, added to this, is a bloated administrative structure that is heavily centralised, slow in decision-making and mismanaged.

Another persistent problem is a high rate of unemployment among graduates. This is largely attributed to the duplication of liberal arts courses by many universities as well as a lack of adequate professional programmes in science and technology that lead to job creation or self-employment and satisfy specific demands of the economy.

None of Cameroon's universities have programmes in architecture and only recently were courses begun in pharmacy, dental surgery and veterinary medicine. Admission into engineering and medicine falls far short of prospective student demand and the job market.

In 1999, after 29 European countries signed the Bologna agreement to harmonise their degree structures into a common three-level bachelor-masters-doctoral system, most French-language public universities in Cameroon followed suit. Prior to that there were intermediary diplomas before bachelor and PhD degrees and this led to a significant drop-out rate among students.

A new bill was signed into law in 2001 requiring all universities to adopt the academic semester calendar and to design programmes tailored on the credit unit system of evaluation to aid global competitiveness. New professional bachelor and masters degree programmes were also introduced and in 2007 the recruitment of more than 1,000 new teaching and research staff over a three-year period to make up for shortfalls in the system was announced.

In 2006, the total number of students enrolled in Cameroon's universities was 108,000 for a population of 18 million. The yearly rate of growth in student enrolment is 20% so it is not surprising that a new Catholic university is planned for Bonjongo near Buea in South West Province. Likewise, at Bali in North West Province, the Cameroon Christian University is set to be operational within two years under the auspices of the Presbyterian Church.