FRANCE: Elite university launches Africa programme

After years of "worrying" about Africa's brain drain, one of France's top universities has decided it is time to set up a special undergraduate programme for African students and others interested in the continent.

The Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris, known more simply as Sciences Po, will inaugurate its Europe-Africa programme in Paris this September, with an initial intake of around 40 students.

The implementation of the programme is a reversal of policy for Sciences Po. The school had long given the 'brain drain' concern as a reason when asked why there was not a campus with a specific focus on Africa.

"Yes, we were uneasy about depriving Africa of its elite students," Françoise Mélonio, Dean of the college, told University World News.

"But the question kept coming back about why there was not an Africa programme, and now the time seems right to do this when we can draw on our experience with other areas."

In addition to its main Paris campus, Sciences Po already has six regional campuses around France devoted to various 'zones' in the world. Students at the school's Ibero-American campus in Poitiers, for instance, learn about the history and politics of Iberia and Latin America.

Other campuses specialise in studies about Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean, Europe and America. Many of the undergraduates are top students from schools in these regions, alongside French students who go through a rigorous selection process.

Some educational experts say the Africa focus is part of an ambitious drive among French universities to extend their reach and influence and also to remove the tarnish of their colonial past.

Science Po's director Richard Descoings is at the forefront of this drive, implementing reforms aimed at making the archaic French system more competitive with top American and British universities.

For instance, since 2002, Sciences Po has been accepting a small group of students from high schools in poor neighbourhoods throughout France. The idea was to make the student community more diverse, despite the elitist label that Sciences Po and other grandes ecoles have in France, experts say.

The Europe-Africa programme will not have its own campus for the first few years but will be housed at the Paris campus, Mélonio said. The 40 or so students scheduled to begin classes in the historical buildings near the Seine River have been 'hand picked' from some 125 applicants.

Twenty-nine were recruited under international procedures, which included school records, interviews with three Science Po delegates, linguistic ability and extra-curricular activity, among other factors, Mélonio said.

A further 11 to 15 students have been identified and will be selected based on the results of French exam procedures, in which they will have to get outstanding grades.

The students from Africa come from a range of countries: Senegal, Kenya, Morocco, Ivory Coast and Somalia, to name a few. Many have multi-cultural backgrounds, according to Sciences Po, such as a Norwegian who lived in Tunisia, and an Italian who lived in Africa and is now based in Belgium.

"No matter where they come from, they already have an interest in Africa," Mélonio said. "They are also interested in the links between Africa and the rest of the world. Africa is not a continent apart."

The students are expected to shine in whatever they do when they return to their home countries. Science Po has a reputation for producing graduates who go on to high positions in politics, business and other areas.

It counts among its alumni former president Jacques Chirac, former United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and the former chief of the International Monetary Fund Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was also a professor of economics at the school.

Among African heads of state Alpha Condé, the president of Guinea, studied at Sciences Po as did Paul Biya, Cameroon's president. But the number of African students has always been low. Currently, of the university's 8,000 students at all levels, only 208 are from Africa, including exchange students and North Africans.

September's intake will boost this number, and it will grow further as the 'campus' develops, said Florent Bonaventure, the 30-year-old academic coordinator of the Europe-Africa programme and himself a graduate of Sciences Po who specialised in African studies at the masters level.

Students will follow the usual core courses taught on all the Sciences Po campuses as well as language and social science classes focusing on Africa.

These are "designed to lead students to an understanding of Africa's diversity, its openness to the world and its economic weight," the school says.

During their first year, students will be introduced to the concepts and methods of five key disciplines: economics, law, history, sociology and political science. In addition, the programme will include courses focused on the African continent in its entirety, Bonaventure said.

For their second year, students will need to select specific themes of interest within each of these five disciplines, and they can also choose various areas in which to specialise.

As with the other Science Po campuses, the students will go 'abroad' in their third year, either to work or attend a local university. They will be steered to an African country other than their homeland so they can benefit from other perspectives, Bonaventure told University World News.

Sciences Po has set up partnerships with universities in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, South Africa, Senegal and countries in North Africa and the Middle East that students may select.

The university says it is also lining up private funding to ensure that the undergraduates have the means to stay the course. Ten students in the Europe-Africa programme will receive scholarships that cover tuition and provide EUR6,000 (Us$8,700) for living expenses in Paris.

Asked whether Africa did not need graduates with more practical skills such as engineering, Bonaventure said that the continent also needs administrators, policy-makers, legal experts and entrepreneurs.

"Science Po has something real to contribute in these areas," he said.