How can the quality of universities be enhanced in 2023?

When Njodzeka Danhatu enrolled in the University of Buea in 2019 he did not expect to spend close to four years studying international relations. Normally, it should have only taken him two years to complete his masters degree. However, more than three years down the line, he has yet to defend his thesis, which kept him from graduating with his peers from the programme they signed up for in 2019.

As 2023 begins, Njodzeka cannot help but wonder when he will defend his master’s thesis. He blames the school for not having a robust and efficient follow-up policy. “What explains the fact that one spends up to a month chasing after a supervisor just to have your research looked at?

“Within this period, the supervisor fails to make corrections on your work and this makes it difficult to finalise your thesis. If the supervisor cannot correct your work on time you can imagine how long it would take to graduate from the programme,” Njodzeka averred.

His ordeal is just one example among the myriad of challenges facing students in Cameroon’s higher education sector. The sector is no stranger to problems such as limited funding, nationwide strikes by lecturers over unpaid research allowances, poor infrastructure, ill-equipped and insufficient staff, as well as the effect of the Anglophone armed conflict.

Owing to the conflict in Cameroon’s two Anglophone regions since 2017, many students dropped out of school due to a ban on education imposed by Anglophone separatist fighters. However, the security situation has improved over the years, with more students enrolling in universities and other higher institutions of learning in the restive North West and South West regions.

In the University of Bamenda, a state-run university based in the North West region, teaching and learning are hampered by certain factors which some consider worrying.

“In the University of Bamenda, it is difficult to talk about professionalism of youths and the employability of these youths upon graduation,” Kum Nji Desmond, a PhD student, told University World News. He added that “it is mostly focused on theory-oriented studies”.

Desmond is not alone in this line of thought. Njodzeka said this opinion also applies to his school which is over 300 kilometres away. “There is a lot of theory given to students without practical knowledge. This makes them unable to deliver when they are on the job market … In my university, the state has not been able to invest a lot to make sure students get the required training,” Njodzeka said.

Small higher education sector, enormous challenges

Cameroon has a small sector with 11 state universities and about 430 recognised private higher institutions of learning.

Statistics from the French Embassy in Cameroon, which suggest that the higher education sector in Cameroon struggle to manage data, reveal that as of 2018, over 335,000 students were enrolled in both state and private universities in the Central African nation.

However, these universities are largely understaffed when compared to the number of students enrolled. Prior to an initiative by Cameroon’s President Paul Biya in 2018 to recruit 2,000 lecturers in state universities, only close to 5,000 lecturers were available to teach students in higher institutions of learning.

As of 2022, the 2,000 lecturers had been recruited to give impetus to teaching and research, thanks to the presidential scheme. However, observers say more needs to be done to address the uneven teacher-student ratio in universities across the country.

“The country has … a gross enrolment ratio in higher education of about 10% . This ratio, the highest in the sub-region, shows that despite the efforts made, higher education in Cameroon remains a vast project to continue to meet the need for training,” according to the report from the French Embassy in Cameroon.

Weak private sector

When it comes to higher education in Cameroon, the private sector has an imposing presence with over 120,000 students in about 430 schools nationwide. However, observers argue that this presence is not being felt.

Samah Abang-Mugwa is an education expert and a social commentator. He criticises what he considers as poor regulation of the sector.

“As much as regulatory provisions exist, it is seemingly easy to circumvent these regulations and get things done the easy way,” he noted, adding that “the current trend of liberalising the private higher education sector has opened the floodgates for the proliferation of below-standard institutions.

“Lapses abound when we look at the infrastructural development and investments that most of these institutions present,” Samah told University World News.

Dr Nick Ngwanyam, who runs a private university in Cameroon, also believes the sector leaves much to be desired. “When licences were given for people to start private institutes, those who started them were not grounded in understanding the vision of what private higher institutes ought to be doing,” he said.

“They still carried on with the ‘subject and certificate’ mentality borrowed from state universities. Some of the teachers were even taken from state universities, so they brought over their mentalities from these universities to the private higher institutes, which has not been helpful at all.”

Cameroon’s performance on a continental scale

In terms of competitiveness, Cameroonian universities perform differently when compared to other universities across Africa. Some occupy good positions, while others could be described as average-performing.

Seven out of the country’s 11 state universities make the list of best universities in Africa for 2022, according to the Scimago Institutions Rankings. In terms of overall performance, the University of Dschang was ranked 42nd out of 244 universities graded, while the University of Maroua had the lowest rating among Cameroonian universities categorised. It occupied 107th place. The other five universities were ranked 48th, 51st, 73rd, 78th and 92nd.

Research is the backbone of every university in the world. Cameroonian universities have shown proof of investing in research, to better the quality of higher education. As competitive as this domain is in Africa, Cameroon also features in the Scimago Institutions Rankings’ 2022 research rating.

The University of Buea was ranked 34th out of 244 African universities in terms of research, while the University of Maroua emerged in 90th place – the least ranked among the other six Cameroonian universities. The other local schools were categorised as 46th and 59th, two were paired in the 63rd position, while another came in 72nd place.

Government’s strides are insufficient

The Cameroonian government has been making efforts to improve the higher education sector amid the obvious challenges. Speaking to members of parliament in November 2022, the Minister of Higher Education Professor Jacques Fame Ndongo is quoted by local media as saying “we will do everything to ensure that our universities are at the top level of science and that our students are competitive”.

He emphasised the need for the “professionalisation and digitalisation of teaching.” However, so far, the reality on the ground proves that there is a long way to go in order to achieve this goal. The adoption of digital technology as an accompanying method of learning by some universities remains an issue of concern.

Desmond said that some of their lecturers are not tech-savvy and use out-dated curricula to teach students, thereby affecting the quality of education.

“Most of them are not really equipped with modern technology that can enhance the teaching and learning process of students in the University of Bamenda. Their teaching methods are not very flexible and do not meet up with the changing times. Some of them still practise the teaching methods used in the 1980s and 1990s. They are not adaptable, available and accessible for every student in the 21st century.”

If the adoption of e-learning is a problem, internet connectivity in schools remains another hurdle which government is trying to address. The cost for internet services is considered high by some students, while others are more concerned about bandwidth and internet speed on campus.

Despite a 2020 deal between the ministry of higher education and the state-owned telecommunications company, CAMTEL, to install high-speed internet connection on university campuses across the country, students still complain about the efficacy of internet services on campus.

Desmond recommends that his university introduce “a policy which ensures that the campus is flooded with internet connectivity to enable students to conduct research while on campus”.

Education a priority

According to the data platform Knoema, public spending on education in 2020 as part of Cameroon’s GDP was 3,2%. Since 2021, expenditure on education has been on the rise, even though the higher education sector often gets the least share of the education budget.

Amid the challenges in the sector, government spending on higher education will increase in 2023 by about US$ 15 million as compared to 2022 – a step which according to the minister, will modernise and professionalise teaching and learning in higher institutions in the coming year.

In 2023, the ministry will run on a budget of close toUS$ 119 million out of over US$ 1,2 billion allotted to the education sector as a whole.

Higher education in 2023

Stakeholders in higher education have made several proposals to improve the sector in 2023. For Dr Nick Ngwanyam, the country’s current educational system needs a complete overhaul in favour of STEM education.

“80% of our studies now are arts inclined and are not STEM based, with just 20% limping in the STEM area. They do not have practical workshops and they do not do a lot of practical work,” Ngwanyam said.

He insisted that “we need to change our curriculum, change the school system and bring in teachers from abroad who are STEM inclined to teach our children ….” He also emphasised that “all our teachers need to be upgraded and reclassified”.

Meanwhile, some students suggest that government emphasises the quality of education, instead of the proliferation of higher institutions of learning. To them, priority should be on high standards.

“The problems we should be solving should be about setting the bar very high for people to gain access [to] certain programmes in universities. With that, many people will study hard, thereby enabling them to withstand challenges that come their way. When they go out there, they would be able to innovate without necessarily depending on the government to provide jobs for them,” Njodzeka Danhatu proposed.

To improve teaching and learning in 2023, Desmond recommends that, “[l]ecturers could always go for refresher courses to adapt and adjust their curricula to meet the challenges. They should also ensure that what they teach is entrepreneurial so that their students would emerge as job creators and not job seekers.”

The World Bank revealed that youth unemployment in Cameroon stood at 6,64% in 2021. With this number of young people out of work – among them university graduates – many believe that higher education in the country needs to be professionalised, to enable young people to conveniently secure or create jobs upon graduating from university.