WEST AFRICA: Universities debate keeping campus peace

Governments and university communities must take measures to prevent recurrent violent incidents breaking out on campuses, representatives of higher education institutions concluded at an international conference on keeping the peace in West African universities.

The meeting, chaired by Professor Joseph Paré, Burkina Faso's Minister for Secondary and Higher Education and Scientific Research, was organised by the University of Ouagadougou, the Conference of African and Indian Ocean Francophone University Rectors or CRUFAOCI, and the Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie, or AUF.

The aim of the conference was to share good practices and produce a report on 'conditions for a social dialogue with a view to stabilisation in West Africa's universities', reported Sidwaya of Ougadougou.

Among issues debated were conditions that led to university crises, social aspects of university governance and how to manage serious incidents.

Causes of crises raised by participants included social and political changes during the 1980s and 1990s, the significant impact of states' structural adjustment programmes on educational policies, lack of safe spaces for consultation and communication and dysfunctional university governance.

Professor Jean Koulidiaty, President of Ouagadougou University, said university leaders had never before met to "reflect on finding definitive, or lasting, solutions to the common problem of instability in the heart of our universities".

During the past few years universities had become places of violence, he said. "This sanctuary has changed into a shooting range, a battlefield where sometimes we are abandoned to trench warfare worthy of Verdun." He cited his university's lost year in 1999 and recurring strikes as examples.

Professor Etienne Ehouan Ehile, President of CRUFAOCI, believed economic, social and managerial factors and the politicisation of the university environment were among causes of violence.

Bernard Cerquiglini, Director of the AUF, which brings together more than 700 universities worldwide, said stabilising universities would be "the result of a process followed with method and rigour".

"As well as dialogue, other measures were necessary "such as reform of programmes, professionalisation of courses, the question of student numbers - without forgetting the development of university infrastructures," Cerquiglini said.

The agency's President, Yvon Fontaine, said the AUF was accompanying universities with the support of the Pan-African Institute of University Governance. This body was set up last year in partnership with the Association of Commonwealth Universities.

The conference recommended governments should invest more in educational and administrative infrastructure and facilities, training trainers, diversifying educational possibilities and upgrading teaching careers.

Universities should ensure that students were aware of their role in the smooth running of institutions, emphasising tolerance of opinions different from their own, respecting the rights to demonstrate and not to demonstrate, stopping violence on campus, accepting they should contribute to the cost of their education.

If crisis erupted, conditions of dialogue should be created with mutual respect between the parties who should be prepared to accept compromise.

A guide to university stability will be drawn up and endorsed by the CRUFAOCI and university managers.