SENEGAL: Western universities' presence on the rise

The phenomenon of European, American and Canadian universities, or some of their programmes, setting up campuses in Senegal is one that keeps on growing, for a number of reasons. Some argue that one driver of the trend is an attempt on the part of Western nations to curb immigration of young people eager to pursue studies abroad.

Sometimes the setting up of decentralised campuses is a solution to the challenge of the high cost of studying abroad. In other cases, it is a bid to ensure the survival of study programmes that, due to low applicant numbers, no longer accept students back in the institution's home country (mainly France).

Bachelors and masters degrees and high-level diplomas of all kinds from prestigious French, Canadian and US universities have been available in Senegal for a number of years.

For example, in 1993 Suffolk University from Boston, Massachusetts, opened a branch in Dakar. However, the Dakar branch has now closed its doors due to the high cost to the institution of servicing its Senegal-based students.

The École des Hautes Études Commerciales Commission, or HEC, one of France's foremost business schools, has a campus in Dakar.

And France's University of Perpignan including the law school, which had a subsidiary in Senegal through the auspices of the Higher Institute of Law, has now become the University of Social Sciences in Dakar.

The Senegalese press constantly advertises advanced degrees in various disciplines at private colleges and schools in partnership with renowned European or American universities.

The phenomenon, which is on the rise in Senegal, has the blessing of a few private higher education structures. And some private commercial organisations are in partnership with foreign universities.

For example, the Senegalese Shippers Council has signed agreements with the University of Nantes in France to relocate, where possible, its academic programmes to Senegal, and to provide courses and award degrees co-signed by the director of the company and the head of the academic programme.

But this type of partnership with Senegal's public universities is rare, according to Bhen Sikina Toguebaye, professor of animal biology and parasitology in the faculty of science and technology of Francophone Africa's oldest university, University Cheikh Anta Diop (UCAD).

Toguebaye revealed that partnerships between overseas universities and private institutions in Senegal are subject to long rounds of formalities before permission is granted to the university to settle in the country.

According to Toguebaye, applications have to be approved by departments and faculties and by the local partnering institution. In addition to these obstacles, the proposed relocation is the subject of a draft decree prepared by the university endorsing the relocation to Dakar.

It is an obstacle course, with success not always guaranteed.

It is to escape all of these constraints that many of the Western universities prefer to settle in Senegal under the guise of private institutions (which have 30% of total enrolment in higher education in Senegal), and seek to conceal their true identities.

But another challenge is that most of the universities or private institutions that host them in Senegal are facing problems of recognition of diplomas by the African and Malagasy Council for Higher Education.

Some universities relocate in response to staffing problems in courses taught back home. And in some French universities, for example, according to a source close to the UCAD rector, a programme that does not receive more than 10 students automatically closes. So the team back in France that taught the programme in conjunction with a Senegalese private higher education institution might decide to relocate to Senegal.

Trips of teaching staff to deliver the courses are funded by tuition fees received from students. This new trend had merit, some say, to prevent students from being penalised by the high cost of studies in the West after the currency devaluation of the CFA franc.

For the French, the trend to set up decentralised campuses in Senegal could serve to limit immigration of young people eager to try their luck in France.

Nevertheless, said Babacar Gaye Fall, who heads the management of the private higher education sector in Senegal, "we have to put some order into this situation".

Even if the sector is liberalised it will be necessary that the services offered comply with "higher education quality standards and defined criteria". According to him, "the context of marketisation of higher education should not be a reason for Senegal to accept just anything".

Professor Abdou Salam Sall, a former UCAD rector, at an international meeting of heads of French-language universities in Dakar, expressed astonishment at the fact that the services of French public universities become 'private' once they cross African borders.

But according to sources close to the UCAD rector, this observation angered the leadership of French universities to the point where, on his return to France, Sall was hauled over the coals for his statements, accused of showing the former colonial power in a poor light.