Aims of national HE consultation, and union opposition

Professor Souleymane Bachir Diagne, head of the steering committee for the government’s national consultation on higher education, has described challenges facing the sector and measures needed to solve a structural crisis in Senegal’s universities. But the lecturers’ union SAES has warned that the consultation is heading for “total failure”.

The union also criticised the appointment of Diagne – who has a long career as an academic and in higher education policy-making in Senegal and is currently professor of French at Columbia University in New York – to lead the national consultation, which was announced by Minister of Higher Education Mary Teuw Niane last year.

In an interview published in Le Soleil of Dakar, Diagne described a “radical imbalance between a rapidly growing student population” and “infrastructure to cater for them and a framework for educating them that are not up to this demographic challenge”.

There was also an imbalance between university entry diplomas and the reality of university demands, he said.

The school-leaving examination the baccalauréat, which entitles holders to higher education, should be the first university diploma but is actually the last secondary school diploma, and no longer measured students’ capacity to follow higher education, said Diagne.

The overall result was that Senegal had “a university structurally in crisis”.

The model for this ‘crisis university’ was the country’s leading university, Cheikh Anta Diop (UCAD) in Dakar, said Diagne. The others – at Ziguinchor, Thiès and Bambey – were smaller and easier to manage, and innovation was easier there.

He praised private higher education, attended by 30% of the nation’s students, which was “essentially of quality” and “globally merits our keeping our rank as a place to attract African intelligence”.

Everyone agreed that the education on offer must be in harmony with the country’s socio-economic realities, said Diagne, “because it is necessary always to keep an eye on employment, on the markets”.

He gave as an example Ziguinchor, which offers courses in agro-forestry and which, one would suppose, would be in harmony with the region’s ecology, he said.

A second university planned to open in Dakar should relieve the pressure on UCAD, where many students end up because they are unable to find a university place elsewhere, Diagne continued.

UCAD was “crumbling” under numbers that were so high that no real education was possible. “Those without places make for Dakar, demanding to be taken by Dakar, under a perverse logic which consists of saying that since the bounds have already been broken, there are no more limits,” he said.

He stressed the priority need to promote ‘STEM’ subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – as all emerging countries were doing.

Expertise in these disciplines would help attract investors. Also, it was a sector where it was easiest to find a job or become self-employed, said Diagne. The new Dakar university would fit into the STEM perspective.

But the humanities and social sciences would not be forsaken, he said. They would be strengthened with the development of STEM because students would study them through positive choice, not by default as at present.

Development of professionally oriented education was another important aspect, including short vocational courses, which would be promoted in new institutes of higher professional education.

Asked if Senegalese diplomas had lost their “excellent reputation at an international level”, Diagne said the country had “a tradition. When one thinks of an intellectual or academic tradition, one thinks of Senegal. It is a tradition that remains strong.”

But, he added, there was no institution that had not suffered from the higher education crisis, which had lasted for a long time. The imbalance between demography and infrastructure had to be paid for.

“Imagine a primary school class today, which numbers at least 70 pupils. What kind of education can you devise for such a class? Have you time to make all your pupils talk? No. You find yourself in front of children whose intelligence you must stimulate…Clearly, you do not have the time or the resources.”

Senegal used to have an excellent education system, said Diagne. “We owe it to this tradition to ensure that in conditions which are no longer structurally and demographically the same we can, even so, sort out this structural crisis.”

However, Diagne’s optimism was not matched by higher education union SAES, according to SudOnline of Dakar.

It reported Ababacar Ndiaye, general secretary of SAES, as saying that the national consultation was “heading for total failure” and that it had “got off on the wrong foot”, with the appointment of wrong steering committee members – including Diagne – and lack of union participation.

Ndiaye said there was too much haste in working out the terms of reference, which were “very poor”, and added that the union would not sign a pact with the government “which does not refer to us at all”.

Le Soleil reported SAES official Moustaphe Sall as saying: “In reality, the only thing the government is interested in is to make us sign a stability pact. Everything is about consultation and the urgent matters are forgotten.

“Inevitably we will have a problem responding to the conclusions.”

SAES also objected to the appointment procedure of the steering committee, reported SudOnline. “We are not in agreement with this kind of selectivity. There are experienced professors in Senegal who are capable of heading this committee,” said Ndiaye, referring to Diagne’s current post abroad.

Le Soleil reported Ndiaye as saying: “We can see a non-inclusive process in the choice of university members of the committee, and its chair in particular, who has been disconnected from the realities of higher education on Senegalese soil for more than a decade.”

SAES claimed that the terms of reference contained contradictions, and the consultation would not solve the sector’s current urgent problems.

Sall said there were currently 25,000 school-leavers entitled to higher education who had no university place because of delayed examinations, which were due to lack of teachers. At the same time, he said, “there are many young PhDs who ask only to be recruited”, reported SudOnline.

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