Challenges and solutions for Francophone universities

While the number of students in Africa continues to rise, universities often fail to equip them with skills needed for employment – and they have two to three times less chance of finding work than those who left school after primary level. This situation formed part of the backdrop for a conference that debated problems faced by higher education in Africa – and suggested some innovative solutions.

The French newspaper Le Monde Afrique published a series of reports in the run-up to the third Débats du Monde Afrique, which was opened in Dakar by Senegal’s President Macky Sall.

Le Monde Afrique includes reports on the internationally recognised 2iE engineering school in Burkina Faso, and on imaginative solutions aimed at overcoming Africa’s lack of high-level skills in engineering, mathematical sciences and other areas.

It interviewed French mathematician and Fields Medal winner Cédric Villani, who teaches in several universities in Francophone African countries; and Laurent Batsch, president of France’s Dauphine University, which has just opened a campus in Casablanca.

Facts and figures

Among the facts about African higher education given in Le Monde Afrique are that:
  • • Between 13% and 20% of students registered for European universities’ distance education courses are African.
  • • One in 16 African students follows studies outside their home country – the biggest student mobility rate in the world.
  • • 20,000 articles by authors from Sub-Saharan countries were published in scientific and technical journals in 2013, compared with 4,000 in 2003.
  • • African higher education graduates are between two and three times more likely to be unemployed than young people who left education after primary school.
  • • Four African universities are in the best-rated 500 in the world – one in Egypt and three in South Africa.
  • • The rate of access to higher education in Africa is 18%, compared with 76% in Western countries.
Setting the scene

In an editorial Jérôme Fenoglio, director of Le Monde, and Serge Michel, editor-in-chief of Le Monde Afrique, write that if you are young and African and you want to avoid unemployment, then going to university is not the best idea.

“According to the International Labour Organisation, the continent’s higher education graduates are between two and three times more at risk of unemployment than young people who finished their schooling after primary level.”

They say universities and grandes écoles have been overtaken by increased numbers of students in Africa – which “multiplied by 20 from 1970 to 2007, against five in the world” – and often by the obsolescence of their courses.

African employers find students do not have the skills they need, while the best or luckiest students go abroad to study, forming an elite that too seldom returns to the continent.

The stakes are huge, with 300 million young Africans due to enter the job market between now and 2050. “Their impatience is already clear. Disappointed by what is on offer, they are looking for ways to learn on their own,” write Fenoglio and Michel.

But Africa, faced with a mountain of problems, is making its ‘retardation’ an advantage and inventing mountains of solutions and progressing by leaps and bounds, say Fenoglio and Michel. The continent is offering an interesting educational landscape today, in which private and public initiatives, new methods and new technologies abound.

First results include the five AIMS centres of excellence – African Institutes of Mathematical Sciences – and 25 campuses that are aiming to launch the African Leadership Network. There are African masters courses rivalling those in the developed world, and quality MBAs available in Morocco and Senegal.

The Lausanne École Polytechnique is developing massive open online courses, or MOOCs, in Benin; and African philosophers are developing ‘ateliers de la pensée’ (thought workshops) in Dakar and Saint-Louis. Also in Senegal, private institutions such as ISM and IAM are so good that the state is signing partnerships with them, write Fenoglio and Michel.

Cédric Villani – French mathematician in Africa

Distinguished French mathematician Cédric Villani teaches in Francophone African countries in the AIMS centres – mostly in Cameroon and Senegal but also in Algeria and Benin.

In an interview with Serge Michel for Le Monde Afrique, he says African students are “very interesting".

“They don’t have access to literature, they lack access to international teachers, but one senses their hunger.

“The enthusiasm one tends to forget in more developed countries. They ask many questions in their courses. A surprising mixture of ultra-motivated people, and others who are more passive. Some have learned everything by heart, others are more imaginative.”

Asked if universities were up to the task of catering for these ‘interesting’ students, Villani said they were disadvantaged by excessive numbers. “In Europe the talk is so much of excellence that it becomes sickening. Here, on the contrary, it’s a word not heard enough.

“The problem for African universities is to manage to select the students who can move up to the next level, to the best centres. That is the ambition of AIMS, which is a remarkable model, linked to the universities but with a certain independence.”

African English-speaking academe was very different from the French, he said. “The African scientific world is split between the more practical Anglophones, and the more theoretical Francophones with a better standard in mathematics.

Neither will assimilate the other, but a marriage between the two is an important equation to solve for the continent, given that there are some heavyweights on the Anglophone side: Nigeria has about 100 universities, there are quality facilities in South Africa, and Rwanda is making fast progress.”

Villani said that France risked missing an opportunity because it was not very involved with the AIMS initiative. Although French governance was good, he thought its structure was maybe not suited to assimilating new ideas.

“In 2100 there will be four billion Africans, the biggest reservoir of students in the world. Will France have the courses? Will it be ready to take on the needs of education, or will everything go through the American universities?”

Paris-Dauphine University in Morocco

France’s Paris-Dauphine University opened a branch in Casablanca last October. Its president Laurent Batsch explained the institution’s motivation and its other experiences abroad.

Interviewed by Pierre Lepidi in Le Monde Afrique, Batsch said that Dauphine had traditionally catered for a sizeable number of Moroccan students, many of whom as graduates now held important economic posts in Morocco.

“In addition, Paris-Dauphine has a true African presence because it delivers an international MBA in Algiers, Tunis, Dakar and Mauritius.

“And we, like everyone in the world, see the dynamic growth of the continent, the increasing demand for education of the middle classes. Even if it is still underdeveloped it’s beginning to emerge and we want to seek out the good African students.”

Dauphine opened in London two years ago, Madrid this year and in Tunis in 2009, and it outsources degree programmes in Hanoi, Beijing and Montreal. “Our first interest is to make our reputation known abroad,” said Batsch.

In Casablanca, where Batsch expects to enrol about 200 students, Dauphine is offering seven continuing education diplomas from the second masters year, including Islamic finance, property management and health management – all courses that are on offer in Paris.

On Dauphine’s experience in Tunis, Batsch noted that it had been there through the 2011 revolution, and was an independent institution. “We have about 320 students. We have always hoped that Tunis would be an open door, like Casablanca, to Sub-Saharan Africa.

“The political situation in the region, especially conditions in Libya, has prevented that happening. But stability in Tunisia is underway. We are here for the long term, and we will use our Tunisian experience to reapply in Casablanca.”