BURKINA FASO: Post-crisis Ouaga adjusts to Bologna

As universities prepare to integrate the degree structure known in French-speaking countries as 'LMD' (licence-master-doctorat), based on Europe's Bologna process, Professor Jean Couldiaty explained in a newspaper interview how he is dealing with the aftermath of crises at the University of Ouagadougou, where he is president - and why some student habits must change.

Burkina Faso has been preparing for LMD for several years with varying degrees of success, reported Fasozine of Ouagadougou. The system provides for higher education studies of three years (licence, bachelor's equivalent), five years (masters) and eight years (doctorate), and students gain their qualifications by earning credits throughout their courses.

Ougadougou University, Burkina Faso's oldest higher education institution, which is set to adopt LMD, has been rocked by crises going back to the late 1990s when student protests led to wasted or near-wasted years.

Most recently, 2008 saw a two-month campus closure and violent clashes between students and police; when courses resumed that September it was not for the start of the new university year, but continuation of the previous one.

Last year was disrupted by a three-month lecturers' strike from April to July, and the calendar again had to be redrawn to fit in examinations, evaluation, resits and new enrolments. The 2009-10 academic year started in January 2010.

In a long interview with Adama Ouédraogo Damiss of L'Observateur Paalga of Ouagadougou, Couldiaty denied students' claims that his university's academic years had been 'overlapping'. But he said the crises had led to a "time transfer of university years" which had resulted in delays in decision-making.

He said the new university year would begin in November though departments that needed more time could apply to start in December.

But, said Couldiaty: "There is no overlapping of years. If one department finishes before another, that's normal. If you take regular departments which do regular diplomas, there are 25 weeks of compulsory teaching.

"In the professionally oriented courses there is a minimum of 29 weeks. It's natural that those who work 25 weeks finish before those who work 29, without counting the disruptions. There might be 'expansion' but not overlapping," he said.

"There are departments that asked to work until 10 August; I asked them to consult the students because the university residences and restaurants will be closed and I am not in a position to provide them with food and drink. They listened and it worked out."

Students were more and more aware, he said. Those in their final year who wanted to continue in Europe or elsewhere were keen to complete within the time limits because grants were awarded in October.

"Last year...the departments of Legal and Political Sciences and of Economics and Management finished in February; no student received a grant. They've learnt the lesson of that experience, and they work."

Couldiaty said the introduction of LMD meant the new year would be different from the last one.

"It will be an enormous undertaking, and communication will be important so everyone knows there will be two enrolments - one academic and administrative enrolment, and one for teaching."

At the end of the first semester students would have to enrol again for the second, he explained. Many meetings had been held to ensure everybody was informed.

But he admitted new students did not know about the changes. "Anyhow, information circulates and when the new students get their forms they will see we don't talk any more about 'maths-physics' or 'physics-chemistry', but 'the field of sciences and technologies', for example."

Asked why student accommodation and restaurants would be closed during the holidays when they used to be open, Couldiaty said CENOU, the student social aid service, was trying to "rationalise its affairs".

"Our calendar indicates two months' holiday, unlike last year, and during these two months the students are supposed to be on holiday, at home with their parents.

"From that moment, CENOU closes its university restaurant; you should know that a meal there costs FCFA600 (US$1.2), and the state subsidises it at FCFA500. Are we going to continue to serve during the holidays when we don't even know the number of students who will be eating there? If the university is closed CENOU does not carry out its activities either. That allows us to rationalise the public finances."

"The University of Ouagadougou consumes 600 million of electricity a year; do you think that is tolerable? We can't close the campus and continue to pay water, electricity and food for the students under the pretext it has become an established practice. The state cannot continue to spend like this," he said.

"So we must be judged by the yardstick of rational and efficient management of our meagre resources. Things must change. Look, for example, at enrolments - there is no deadline; people come any time to enrol."

Couldiaty added: "There are students who are coming to enrol at the University of Ouagadougou for the year 2009-10."

He claimed his relations with the unions were 'excellent', and he 'took off his hat' to the student unions.

"I don't do anything without asking students' advice," he said. "Students have my telephone number, they call me and send me texts. I'm very lucky and I hope that will continue until the end of my mandate."