SENEGAL: Radical reforms for higher education
"The university changed the rules without explaining how the new set-up works. That's why we demonstrated," he says. "Now the university officials have explained, but there are many other issues, like serious overcrowding, so students are still angry."
When he says the rules have changed, Ndao is referring to the recent implementation of LMD reform, named for the three degrees recognised by the state: licence-maitrise-doctorat (bachelor-masters-doctorate).
This reform follows the Bologna process in Europe and aims to harmonise degree structures, credit systems and quality assurance procedures in all of Senegal's higher education programmes, and indeed in all 15 countries in the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS.
In the long term, this harmonisation may be beneficial for students like Ndao, who might like to work abroad. But in the short term there has been confusion about what courses to take and how much time course work will demand.
The "other issues" to which Ndao refers are overcrowding and a lack of facilities caused by a problem plaguing universities everywhere: shrinking budgets and exploding student populations.
Sitting in an office piled high with books and folders in the imposing Building Administratif, the Senegal government's minister responsible for such matters, Amadou Tidiane, agrees with the students that there are serious challenges.
But, says the Ministère de l'Enseignement supérieur, des Universités et des Centres universitaires Régionaux et de la Recherche, recent demonstrations at the university are just the latest growing pains in what really began in earnest in 2000, when the University of Cheikh Anta Diop (UCAD) committed itself to an entirely new approach.
"Under the guidance of our country's President, Abdoulaye Wade, we have restructured, adopting new orientations and training strategies that will help us better meet the needs of our population," he told University World News.
The minister says Senegal is determined to meet the challenges and, indeed, is attempting to position itself in the forefront of the African educational reform movement. One of the major ways the country is doing so is by restructuring the higher education system.
In the past, Senegalese students seeking undergraduate university education in their home country could study only for highly theoretical and academic degrees. This emphasis on general education rather than practical and professional programmes was consistent with a university system modeled on that of France, which held Senegal as a colony until 1960.
According to the minister, it wasn't until 1971 that Senegalese higher education began to "disconnect from the French model". And it wasn't until 2000 that the restructuring began in earnest, inspired in large part by Europe's 1999 Bologna Declaration.
In 2000, higher education professionals throughout West Africa were intrigued by Bologna, seeing it as a potential model for their own educational reforms. Under the guidance of Wade, Senegal's education leaders began the reform process by bringing in elements of the North American system and by drawing heavily on the whole Bologna process.
Minister Tidiane says that the LMD reform, now being carried out with major financial support from the African Development Bank, will "fundamentally change the system of delivering diplomas" at UCAD, and throughout Senegal and ECOWAS countries.
All post-secondary degrees earned in all 15 countries will be mutually recognised.
As important as the LMD reform is, Senegal's higher education system faces other serious and immediate challenges. Chief among them are a burgeoning student population and the pressing need for more funding and resources.
Notwithstanding the generosity of the World Bank, the Islamic Development Bank and the African Development Bank, outside funding has been and continues to be difficult to obtain. For example, in the 1980s approximately 20% of World Bank funding for Senegalese education went to higher education. By the end of the 1990s, this funding had dropped to 7%.
The world recession has only exacerbated the problem. As funds dry up and student populations increase, Cheikh Anta Diop and other public universities in Senegal have to stretch their resources further and further.
However, says Tidiane, Senegal is tackling its higher education problems on many fronts.
The University of Cheikh Anta Diop and the country's other public universities are badly overcrowded. As a result, students often lack access to basic facilities and resources. Classrooms, teachers and books are all in short supply.
According to Tidiane, the University system is simply not expanding fast enough to accommodate the growing number of students seeking places.
"Although President Wade has devoted 40% of the national budget to education, most of that money has gone to elementary and secondary schools," he explains. "Improvements in elementary and secondary education have been most welcome, but these improvements have created even more students clamoring for higher education.
"In fact, in the last 10 years, the number of students entering Cheikh Anta Diop each year has tripled. Today over 60,000 full-time students are enrolled and share facilities designed to accommodate a maximum of 30,000. The same is true for all universities throughout the country.
Minister Tidiane continues: "We Senegalese usually frame the problem as 'too many students in our universities'. However, if we refer to UNESCO standards, a full 2% of the population should be in university.
"Senegal's current population is 12,500,000, so we should have 250,000 university students. However, our universities, although bursting at the seams, have an enrollment of only half that number. Clearly, our problem is not the sheer number of students, but the lack of resources to meet their needs."
One of the most important of these vital resources is a steady supply of qualified teachers. Currently, the minister says, as part of Senegal's new professionalisation system, there are plans to create a two-year professional teacher's programme - an Institut Supérieur Pédagogique - to be located at Thiès.
This publicly administered school will offer its students a mix of theory and practice, and will give them credit for prior teaching experience. Its flexible structure will allow students to study for a year, leave and work in a classroom for a year or two, then return to complete their diploma. Thus, they will graduate with a degree and the experience needed to begin teaching.
The World Bank is supporting this vital project.
New campuses, buildings and distance programmes
There are several ways in which the government is addressing the facilities problem. Five years ago, Wade approved the map showing new public universities to be established throughout the country.
Today, in line with LMD reforms, three of these institutions have opened their doors - Bambey, Thiès, and Ziguinchor - and next year there will be another in Dakar, which should relieve congestion at UCAD.
"In the very near future," Tidiane explains, "we also plan to open public universities in Kaolack and Louga. And, eventually, we hope to create regional university centres or satellite campuses of our main public universities to serve students who cannot travel far from home."
The government's hope is these centers will bring higher education to non-traditional students.
Looking to the future, the minister says the government sees e-learning as a promising way to extend higher education to rural and non-traditional students and take the pressure off existing universities.
"Since the quality of any distance education programme needs to be carefully monitored, we plan to set up a national agency specifically charged with overseeing all aspects of e-learning."
Before they can move forward on this front, however, he says the government must be able to supply students with computers, a costly undertaking that will require major outside funding.
Science, maths and technology
The government believes it is essential to strengthen Senegal's technical and scientific capacity. "In all our universities, we are working to refresh outmoded curricula," Tidiane says. But he admits that progress is slow. "Last year, out of approximately 30,000 incoming university students, 21,000 or 70% still chose to study literature!"
He says universities are encouraging students to study a broader range of subjects, especially maths, science and technical subjects.
One recent project was the opening of computer centers in suburban areas. Since many Senegalese children do not have early or easy access to computers, the centers should provide them with the experience and training that will prepare them for jobs or motivate them to study in computer-related fields.
There are also two écoles polytechnique (technical schools), one in Thiès and the other in Dakar, where students take a two-year programme to develop highly marketable technical skills that allow them to enter the workforce immediately upon graduation. More of these schools are planned.
Reorganisation of the ministry
Such large, ongoing higher education projects - opening more universities and professional schools, implementing the LMD reform, and offering non-traditional learning venues like distance education - require not only major funding but also major changes in the governing structure.
The Ministry of Education has been reorganised to manage these new projects and other recent changes.
One such change is the dramatic increase in the number of private universities, which has gone from 34 in 2000 to 146 in 2010. Of all students now enrolled in post-secondary institutions in Senegal, more than a quarter are studying in private institutions.
Since private colleges and universities must adopt the LMD reform and abide by the same standards as public universities, the ministry has set up a department specifically charged with assuring that LMD reform is carried out in private institutions.
Recognising higher education as the engine that drives socio-economic development and eager to build strong research communities in maths, science and technology, the country is making Herculean efforts to expand and dramatically change its system of higher education to meet the needs of the country and the continent.
"The outcome of the projects should improve living conditions and the lives of our population. With competence comes leadership," Tidiane continues. "We are building competence and creating leaders."
For his part, now that things have quieted on the campus, Lamine Ndao is more than happy to just settle down to study for his exams.
However, like Minister Amadou Tidiane, Ndao knows the road to thoroughly modernising Senegal's university system will be bumpy. And again like the minister, Ndao firmly believes that in the end the project will be successful.
And both the minister and the student would most surely concur with Ghana's second president, John Agyekum Kufuor, who said most succinctly: "Education, particularly higher education, will take Africa into the mainstream of globalisation."