No student rooms? Restaurants and sports fields make do

West African universities, as with all reputation-conscious academic institutions around the world, want to be competitive and perform well across many higher education performance indicators, including student life. But, in French-speaking countries, these institutions operate in social contexts that are often characterised by deficits.

In Côte d’Ivoire, for instance, despite huge government investments to improve university infrastructure, student housing appears to be a thorny issue. For 30 years, public universities have been confronted with a shortage of student housing.

This situation has led to several protests organised by student unions. Alongside these protests, students have demonstrated their resilience.

The housing shortage is even more pronounced in neighbouring Burkina Faso. As in Côte d’Ivoire, the increase in the number of students has created a situation in which the available residences are insufficient.

In these contexts, how does the resilience of students manifest itself? How do students survive? How do governments and university authorities in these countries deal with the situation?

Student housing in Côte d’Ivoire

From the 1990s, the increase in the number of students in Ivorian public universities contributed to a lack of rooms in university residences. Strikes, boycotts and demonstrations have been carried out by the Fédération estudiantine et scolaire de Côte d’Ivoire, or FESCI, a new student union (still underground) to protest against this situation.

Aware of the need to invest in the improvement of the university system, political authorities have made promises to address concerns. But these efforts have been undermined by about a decade of socio-political crisis and its economic consequences.

In this context, students have displayed their resilience. Some students have taken up residence in amphitheatres, as revealed in an interview with the director of a university residence in Abidjan.

He said: “I saw some students who were sleeping in Léon Robert amphitheatre. They keep some clothes and other personal things in the public toilets. The same situation has prevailed at the University Nangui Abrogoua for more than 10 years.”

Other public spaces are occupied at night by students who are not admitted to university residences: sports fields, study rooms and restaurants.

In some cases, rooms are forcibly occupied by individuals claiming to belong to student unions. At the Université Félix Houphouët-Boigny d’Abidjan (Félix Houphouët-Boigny University in Abidjan) students dislike this situation intensely.

“Dozens of rooms have been occupied by students ‘in accordance with’ their belonging to the dominant union. The rooms were not assigned to them following the traditional procedure. And the administration is powerless … Other student associations have acquired rooms by negotiation with the administration and they have installed their members there,” a lecturer at Félix Houphouët-Boigny University said.

More fortunate students benefit from the solidarity of their mates who are already housed in university residences. In this context, there are generally three students in single rooms and five or six in double rooms. Sometimes, these forms of accommodation are permanent, sometimes they are circumstantial – for instance, temporary stays for the preparation of exams.

This critical situation of student housing in Côte d’Ivoire has given rise to certain expressions in the local jargon: the informal places where some students sleep (like amphitheatres) are called ‘Kosovo’ or ‘Koso’ and those who are hosted by their mates in university residences are called ‘Cambodians’.

The lack of places in university residences led private promoters to make offers which are not accessible to the less well-off, according to Ivorian students.

Only the housing offered by religious communities (Catholic and protestant) looks (economically) accessible to everybody. However, in Abidjan, these residences located near the Félix Houphouët-Boigny University can accommodate only a few people.

It should be noted that most private universities in Côte d’Ivoire do not have student residences, although there are exceptions such as the International University of Grand-Bassam.

The government response

From 2011, the Ivorian government invested heavily in the construction and renovation of university infrastructure.

Almost all university residences have been completely renovated. The university authorities are gradually opening the residences and moving the students there. The newly built universities in San Pedro (south-west) and Bondoukou (north-east) (as part of the university decentralisation programme) have their own student residences.

In March this year (2023), the Ivorian minister of higher education announced the opening of the first fully renovated residence of the University of Bouaké (fully renovated).

Housing shortages necessitate the sound management of available resources. That is why university authorities annually organise admission and readmission operations, in order to give students the opportunity to take advantage of university residences.

The university authorities have also started a census of students who squat in amphitheatres, in order to accommodate them. Some have been accommodated, according to the university residence director quoted earlier.

He said: “I have been recently asked to provide a room to a student, a young girl who used to sleep in an amphitheatre at the Nangui Abrogoua University. She is now in her room …”

Student housing in Burkina Faso

In Burkina Faso, the student housing deficit is much greater. Not only is the available accommodation insufficient, but several of the available buildings are dilapidated.

In 2022, there were 13 university campuses, 6,000 beds and more than 190,000 students in the country.

A year later, the Centre National des Oeuvres Universitaires, or CENOU, registered more than 8,000 housing applications.

This shortage influenced the definition of the rules for access to this accommodation: the rooms are allocated to the students only for two years. This leads some students to occupy rooms by force beyond the official deadlines.

Family networks play a major role in access to housing for students. If someone cannot find a room in a university residence, it is often possible to live with a relative throughout the academic year.

While higher education remains a priority sector for the Burkinabé state, the economic difficulties, coupled with the security crisis due to terrorism, make it difficult to invest in student housing.

This fact contributed to the emergence of a student housing market in Ouagadougou, the capital city and main academic centre, and housing rents vary between 30,000 West African francs (about US$51) and 50,000 FCFA (about US$84). But, because of poverty, many students live in precarious outlying neighbourhoods with no running water or electricity.

Student housing deficits appear as the best-shared thing in West African French-speaking countries. In Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso, they have been a source of concern for many years.

In Côte d’Ivoire the current economic upturn favours investment in academic infrastructures but, in Burkina Faso, political and security instability affects planning. And student resilience generally means they have to deal with precariousness.

The challenges of higher education in these states are many, as are the expectations of the youth, who increasingly see international mobility as a source of salvation.

Franck Dago is a lecturer in the department of sociology at the Félix Houphouët-Boigny University in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. His research interests focus on transnationalism, migration policies and international student mobility.