Row mounts over student expulsions

A row over disciplinary measures taken against 16 students – 14 of whom have been expelled – has been mounting at the University of Koudougou in Burkina Faso. Government intervention has failed to restore order, and last week saw more strikes and demonstrations by supporters of the students demanding that the severe punishments be cancelled.

However, the university’s lecturers unanimously insist that the sanctions must remain, and they have called for “the restoration of moral, academic and educational authority”.

The students were variously accused of displaying "attitudes of a nature to compromise educational activities", and boycotting courses and assessments through "physical constraints and verbal aggression". Students have been protesting against various problems for some time.

On the critical day, 4 September, it was alleged that some of them attacked Professor Mahamoudou Oubda, head of history and archaeology.

Six of the students were found guilty of the most serious offences, which included assault and violence against a teacher and students. Their punishment was cancellation of their 2011-12 results and definitive exclusion from all public and private higher education institutions in the country.

Eight students were found guilty of lesser offences. Their results for the entire 2011-12 year were annulled, and they were expelled from Koudougou University for five years.

The offences of the other two students, who were not on campus that day, related to "attitude" and "moderate participation" in impeding educational activities. As punishment their results for the first 2011-12 session were annulled.

Following the disciplinary hearing, tension rose on the campus. After a demonstration and meeting on 11 October UGEB, the General Union of Burkina Faso Students, and ANEB, the National Association of Burkinabé Students, called a 48-hour strike.

Koudougou is a regional capital and one of the tensest towns in the country, said Le Pays of Ouagadougou in an editorial. Prime Minister Luc Adolphe Tiao was originally from the region.

Tiao, worried about events at the university, sent Higher Education Minister Moussa Ouattara and Jérôme Bougouma, minister responsible for territorial administration, decentralisation and security, to Koudougou to mediate, reported Sidwaya.

They met regional and educational authorities and talked at length to university staff. They found opinion sharply divided between those who wanted the punishments lifted or reduced, while others – including all the teaching staff – insisted the sanctions be carried out.

At the meeting Oubda said the students had been disrespectful and violent but he had not been beaten, insulted or sworn at as some had claimed, reported L’Observateur Paalga.

No solution was found at the meeting, and Outtara returned to the university later in the week, when he made clear he supported reducing the students’ punishments, reported Le Pays.

He asked the teachers to reconsider the decision to impose the most severe sanctions, although he stressed it was not for the government to decide, and the university had followed the correct procedures.

Le Pays reported that UGEB organised a press conference on 15 October in support of the 16 students, condemning the punishments, which they regarded as “unjustifiable and unfounded” in view of the poisonous atmosphere prevailing at the university.

They claimed students were excluded from all decision-making and that the university administration wanted to disrupt semesters to promote ‘LMD’, the system based on the Bologna process of three, five and eight years’ higher education.

UGEB demanded cancellation of the students’ punishments, and rescheduling of the boycotted courses and assessments.

In turn, lecturers issued a declaration in which they listed their grievances and reasons why they wanted the students’ punishments retained, reported L’Observateur Paalga.

The statement set out the university’s missions, and the difficulties teachers faced in fulfilling their duties, including lack of teaching materials and suitably equipped buildings such as laboratories, lecture halls, libraries and offices, and even tables and chairs.

They had made sacrifices even under these conditions, including working in the holidays to ensure a normal start to the new academic year. They gave their reasons for frustration and listed at length student offences they had experienced, including preventing courses and assessments taking place, vandalism of teachers’ and university property, tripping up teachers, and noisy intrusions into classes.

The declaration endorsed the punishments the disciplinary council had given to the students who had committed serious offences, and called on the authorities to support those working in the education system “in its quest for the restoration of moral, academic and educational authority”.

L’Observateur Paalga said there were “serious problems” in all Burkina Faso’s public universities. It described student overcrowding, inadequate facilities, lack of lecturers and low pay.

Aiming to mitigate the problems the government had introduced LMD, but according to the F-SYNTER federation of education and research workers, existing problems should have been resolved first.

There had been chaos in the sector for the past two or three years and, said F-SYNTER, the causes were to be found in anti-democratic practices and degradation of teachers’ and students’ living conditions.

The explosion of student numbers had not been accompanied by more teachers or improved administration. In this crisis LMD had been hastily introduced without the necessary substantial structural support for such matters, such as infrastructure, personnel, managing student flows, updating teachers’ training and digital communication.

In its editorial Le Pays questioned whether the punishments were fair. Was the incident an excuse to get rid of ‘undesirable elements’? Oubda said he had not been beaten or insulted, as had been alleged.

UGEB had the support of the Burkina Faso human rights defence movement. There was a lack of communication between the president’s office at the university and the student unions.

Last week the unrest was continuing, reported Le Pays, with students calling a 48-hour strike from Monday. Another stoppage of 24 hours in support of the 14 excluded students was organised on Wednesday by CCVC, the ‘Regional Coalition against Expensive Life, Corruption, Fraud, Impunity and for Freedom’.

Striking students joined in the demonstration around the town, and a letter of protest was delivered to the provincial high commissioner.

* This article is drawn from local media. University World News cannot vouch for the accuracy of the original report.