National consultation drafts 78 proposals for HE

Priority for science, technology, engineering and mathematics was among 78 proposals made at a conference of the National Consultation on the Future of Higher Education held in Dakar, Senegal, this month. Another of the recommendations – to increase student fees – led to violent demonstrations in the capital.

The conference, attended by academics, unions, parents’ associations, politicians, business leaders and civil society representatives, agreed on recommendations on issues including governance, funding, research and innovation, education quality, internationalisation and opening higher education to the market.

The conference, known as CNAES and held from 6-9 April, based its debate on proposals in the steering committee’s preliminary report, itself based on regional consultations, to rescue the higher education sector from its current crisis, reported Ndarinfo of Saint-Louis.

Higher Education and Research Minister Mary Teuw Niane, who announced last year that the national consultation would take place, said that “development of the sector is ineluctably taking place through direct, open and sincere dialogue with all components of Senegalese society, especially the various parts of the academic community”, Ndarinfo said.

The steering committee, chaired by Professor Souleymane Bachir Diagne, underlined the need to train more students in the so-called ‘STEM’ fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, while not neglecting the humanities and social sciences, and to encourage girls to study science at all levels, according to Sud Quotidien of Dakar.

Opening the conference, President Macky Sall said Senegal must increase the number of graduates in “all fields of knowledge” to meet the challenges of sustainable development, especially problems of health, environment, energy, communication and industrial development, reported Agence de Presse Sénégalaise, or APS.

Sall reiterated the steering committee report’s concerns that Senegal needed more graduates in STEM subjects, and that vocational education had been neglected in favour of studies in the arts, human sciences, economics, law and politics, APS wrote in a second article.

“In these fields a tradition of excellence has incontestably been created and must be supported and maintained,” he said. But “selection and access to higher education conforming to international standards must be at the forefront of our thoughts”.

Higher education personnel must “make our system of research more efficient, and give priority to applied research and invest in basic research so future innovation is not compromised”, said Sall. He recommended the establishment of virtual universities to democratise access to higher studies.

“It is right to increase their number and make them a consistent whole, using more efficiently the distance training resources made available to us by our partner, India,” he said.

Performance demands must guide lecturers and researchers, who must optimise public sector resources, said the president, who welcomed recent performance contracts forged between the state, universities and the private sector.

“Higher education institutions must develop mechanisms for self-financing and seek additional budgetary resources to reach a balance between their own funds, direct public finance and authorised private finance.

‘This is a major break that we demand of the Senegalese university,” he told the conference.

At the closure of the conference, Prime Minister Abdoul Mbaye promised that the state would take “special and appropriate measures” to deal with the concerns of all university constituents, reported APS.

“Prominent among the measures which will be taken by the government are the balancing of university budgets, increased capacity, and recruitment of extra staff – teaching and research as well as administrative,” said Mbaye.

As soon as possible a presidential commission would put the recommendations in the conference general report into effect, he promised.

The prime minister looked forward to Senegal building an international reputation for quality higher education, receiving ‘foreign clientele’ from far beyond its borders and becoming a centre for economic growth, reported APS.

“Let us be ambitious and together win the wager to improve the quality of standards of public as well as private universities,” said Mbaye, who stressed it was not a question of privatising public institutions but observing the factors that made private ones successful and questioning how to adapt their model to public higher education.

He called on the community to “try to understand the paradox through which free acquisition of knowledge is associated with the highest number of strikes”, and that “starting from there, perhaps it will become easier to find a consensus on enrolment fees”.

But while it gained the approval of CNAES delegates, a proposal to raise university fees from 5,000 to 150,000 FCFA (US$10 to US$300) from 2014 – with a further increase from 2020 – caused violent demonstrations in Dakar, with burnt tyres, stone-throwing and teargas, reported Radio France International.

A student told RFI that the proposed increase was “privatisation in disguise, and that’s unacceptable. Our parents don’t have the resources; 90% of us are farmers’ sons. Our parents are not civil servants. They don’t have the wherewithal to pay our enrolment fees.”

Another said that if Sall confirmed the proposals, “he’ll see the country turn rough”.

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