Dakar university back in the eye of the storm

After a tumultuous academic year because of a teachers’ strike during eight of its 25 weeks, the University Cheikh Anta Diop of Dakar (UCAD) – Senegal’s biggest university – finds itself again in the eye of a storm.

The Independent Higher Education Union, SAES (Syndicat Autonome de l’Enseignement Supérieur), has been waiting in vain for its demands to be satisfied since the election of Macky Sall as Senegal’s president on 25 March, and the union is now on a war footing.

At the same time students regard the suspension of three of their faculty associations, following a tense atmosphere and insecurity arising from lists of candidates, as a challenge that has to be met at any cost.

The students, who are strongly attached to faculty associations, are ready to seize any pretext to increase tensions, which are already running high since the unofficial announcement by the new government of a review of scholarships and grants.

At UCAD there are growing signs that the new university year will suffer serious disruption. They are sufficiently serious to be of grave concern to deans, the university mediator and some students.

But the new government does not seem to regard the situation as a high priority – although that attitude could cost it dearly.

Students are giving no indication of backing down, the more so, they say, if there is a threat to what they value so highly – that no matter what the circumstances, the state make a real effort to pay scholarships and grants. This is the price to pay to keep universities quiet.

Since the new government’s early announcement that it would review scholarships and grants, students have been preparing to counter-attack.

They regard the financial support as having been won after a long battle with the former government. It was instituted after violence on campuses in January 2011, which resulted in the death of law student Balla Gaye.

But the new government wants to clean up public spending and sees the student aid system as an aberration. Indeed, in some quarters it is seen as a reward for those making little effort and as having led to a marked fall in the quality of higher education, to the extent that graduates have trouble getting accepted into many foreign, especially Western, universities.

One example was the humiliation in 2009 of a Senegalese student enrolled at a French university for a masters degree, who was made to take a high-school dictation test because there were such doubts about his academic preparedness. Nothing like that had ever happened to graduates of Senegalese universities and grandes écoles.

But the former government did not dare to reverse decisions on scholarships and grants for fear of evoking the anger of thousands of students and parents. The poverty in which many parents live means that only with financial aid are their children able to study without having to worry too much about rent, food, transport and books.

The widespread distribution of scholarships and grants means that students in all disciplines can receive a complete scholarship of FCFA36,000 (US$70) a month – almost the minimum wage – or a portion of a scholarship, depending on their circumstances.

Students in the preparatory year for a diploma of advanced studies receive FCFA60,000 a month. This is a benefit they have no intention of giving up, at a time when unemployment among graduates and non-graduates alike is between 54% and 60%.

Student associations: A lifeline

The student associations in faculties are an excellent framework within which students can defend their interests. The rector largely dismantled them, and only two out of five are now fully operational.

Their leaders are in a state of virtual insurrection; understandably, since the associations have long been centres of privilege.

Association leaders have rooms they can let out at high prices (FCFA300,000 to FCFA600,000 each), quotas of scholarships (300 to 400 a year per faculty) and special Ramadan meals that can cost up to FCFA2 million a month. These privileges have been won from the university and deans, whom students have successfully terrorised.

It was these associations that recently opposed the departure of students from prefabricated housing that was to be demolished. The decision was finally implemented, and association leaders have not forgiven the university for inflicting such a setback on them.

One leader with an exaggerated idea of his authority over campus matters has himself called ‘general’ and his subordinates called 'lieutenants' and 'captains'. They wear military uniforms and act like an army. Fortunately, this leader has been in detention for some weeks, facing a variety of charges.

Academic action

The SAES does not plan to embark fully on the forthcoming academic year until problems linked to student reception structures and academic emergencies have been resolved. But union leader Seydi Ababacar Ndiaye said there is no talk this year of an ongoing strike.

The strategy will be reaction and tit-for-tat. He said this was logical given the ‘ceasefire’ that the union observed before and after the presidential election to allow the new head of state to take office and establish a new team.

But having achieved nothing concrete during the seven months since the government came to power, the union has no choice but to continue its battle.

Academics have agreed to open universities after exams, probably by the end of November. But they plan to launch a publicity campaign aimed at society to draw attention to the bad conditions endured by staff and students in national universities.

Academics say they cannot continue taking on extra teaching loads to make up for the very limited recruitment of new staff by the authorities. They claim to be exhausted and running health risks because of their excessive workloads. Among their demands is the completion of a second residential complex for staff, and overtime payments.

At its last meeting SAES warned the government against any attempt to cut the university budget, and demanded the settlement of problems regarding admissions to all universities, as universities were in danger of becoming choked, with incalculable consequences.

Too many students

One of the major problems confronting Senegalese universities, and in particular UCAD, is the suffocating numbers of new students they must admit – an estimated 75,000 this year.

UCAD’s humanities and human sciences faculty is breaking all previous records, with up to 30,000 students, which means there is no room for newcomers.

The head of the SAES said that this chaotic state of affairs backed up its warning to the authorities that they need to find a lasting solution to problems of intake.

The union asked where 30,000 new qualified school-leavers should be steered. To this number must be added up to 15,000 school-leavers from last year who could not be admitted for lack of space.

That was in contrast to their colleagues who demonstrated repeatedly outside the presidential palace and the education ministry and were admitted two days before the start of the second semester exams. These students were sent to the slaughter in the full knowledge that they would not pass the exams because they had taken no courses.

To avoid a repeat the mediator proposed a number of options. One was that the humanities and human sciences faculty should enrol 7,000 applicants with the rest split between other faculties and institutions.

It used to be the rule that all qualified school-leavers were admitted by universities. This year, however, the authorities decided that places should be awarded through competition.

Tensions are running so high in the country’s universities that the UCAD mediator has said there is an urgent need to “defuse the bomb whose consequences nobody can predict”. It is a major challenge for the new higher education minister, himself a graduate of this community.