Central African community accelerates regional HE integration
Experts say they look forward to the effective implementation of these reforms within the next few years, especially now that COVID-19 no longer stands in the way of the integration agenda. CEMAC is made up of six states: Gabon, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, the Republic of the Congo, and Equatorial Guinea.
“We need to effect the changes that will grow the economies in the region and improve the livelihood of the population,” said Isaac Tamba, the director general of the economy and public investments programming in Cameroon’s Ministry of the Economy, Planning and Regional Development (MINEPAT).
With the CEMAC leadership role now transferred to Faustin-Archange Touadéra, the president of the Central African Republic, it is hoped that the annual ministerial sectoral meetings that usually follow that of the heads of state, will allow an evaluation of the success of these reforms in the years ahead, Tamba said.
The six heads of state met at the 15th session of CEMAC in Yaoundé in Cameroon on 17 March 2023. During the meeting, they validated proposals of higher education reforms as one of the key levers to boost a lingering integration process, taking advantage of the creativity and the cultural heritages of the six countries in the region.
Strong political will lauded
Cameroon’s president, Paul Biya, chaired the meeting and said the acceptance of the proposed reforms by all is indicative of the political will to see regional integration and economic growth as outcomes.
Professor Daniel Ona Ondo from Gabon, outgoing chairperson of the CEMAC commission, noted that higher education reforms will bring meaningful collaboration – not only among the education institutions in the region, but especially among the leaders who pull the policy implementation strings.
“These higher education reforms will certainly lead to mutually beneficial sharing of knowledge and resources as well as drive the long-awaited policy change,” Ondo said.
Professor George Ngwa, communications expert and retired United Nations consultant, agrees that the internationalisation of university reforms in the region is laudable, but noted that the challenges to implement them are glaring. “Given the cultural, language and policy differences, I think this should be a mid- to long-term project.”
He said that, given that the educational standards in the CEMAC are not the same, transferring credits from one university or country to another will require harmonising curricula and teaching methods.
“The credit system is essentially an Anglo-Saxon [North American] practice,” Ngwa explained. “We have three approaches in the Central African region: the predominant French, the Spanish in Equatorial Guinea, and the anglophone subsystem in Cameroon. So, there is a need for time to align the systems, set standards and criteria for quality reviews.”
Credit transfers approved
Higher education and scientific research ministers of the CEMAC sub-region agreed during a video conference on 6 August 2021 to implement the course credit transfer and accumulation system (CCTAS) in CEMAC universities. No implementation date was set, but the ministers adopted the resolutions that were tabled at the meeting on 17 March 2023. Technical arrangements to set up the CCTAS were also validated.
The meeting further resolved to create a community quality assurance unit and an excellence label managed by FERDI (the Foundation for Studies and Research on International Development).
Jacques Fame Ndongo, Cameroon’s minister of higher education, said the plan is to operationalise the components of the bachelor, masters and doctoral system, notably the course credit transfer and accumulation part, to improve student and lecturer mobility.
The course credit transfer and academic mobility system are part of the main CEMAC integration projects. They are aimed at integrating resources and skills to offer quality higher education and vocational training in line with labour market demands and international standards, he said.
HE and cultural exchanges are key levers
The higher education experts at the Yaoundé conference see higher education and cultural exchanges as key levers for economic growth and the drive to peace. However, they acknowledged that economic integration has been delayed following repeated crises that have put peace and political stability in some of the countries in peril.
“We are hoping these reforms will act as a catalyst to speed up other economic reforms like the establishment of the CEMAC passport. The implementation of the higher education reforms can only be effective if students and lecturers are able to move freely from one university to another,” said Professor Maurice Aurelién Sosso, rector of the University of Yaoundé 1.
The experts also recommended other reforms, such as the increased flow of information, exchange of academic programmes, and scientific research.
Dr Livinus Esambe Njume, a member of Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative Cameroon (EITI), said regional higher education reforms should go beyond academic course exchange. “We need infrastructural reforms that address students’ needs for quality teaching. A university without a virtual or physical library cannot promote critical thinking,” he said.
Labour market needs must be integrated
University governance in francophone universities is also a big problem compared to their Anglo-Saxon-style counterparts. Training in a university also has to do with ethical values and this must be addressed if the region’s job market challenge is to be overcome, Njume said.
According to the African Development Bank’s ‘Central Africa Regional Integration Strategy Paper 2019-25’, access to education and quality of training remain a structural challenge that hampers the competitiveness of the labour force in the region.
In addition, high unemployment rates, especially among young vocational trainees and graduates of more traditional higher education, indicate a mismatch between education systems and the needs of the private sector.
“Strengthening and harmonising curricula, especially in higher technical and vocational education, as well as promoting regional centres of excellence and skills development in growth-promoting sectors, will help to increase employability. This would advance Agenda 2063’s goals to support young people as the drivers of Africa’s renaissance in general and the Central African regional integration in particular,” the strategy paper reads.