Students outraged after age becomes scholarship criterion

Hundreds of students at the University of Buea, Cameroon, are outraged by the implementation of an age restriction as part of the selection criteria for the presidential scholarship worth FCFA50,000 (about US$83) per beneficiary.

The scholarship, which was first introduced in the 2010-11 academic year, supports higher education students who excel during the academic year with a grade point average (GPA) of 2.5 or higher (the best grade is four).

However, in July 2023, Jacques Fame Ndongo, the minister of higher education, introduced age into the selection criteria – in addition to academic excellence.

According to the decision, undergraduate students must be 22 years old or younger, masters students 25 or younger and PhD students 30 or younger to be considered for the scholarship.

Only students who paid the registration fee for the previous academic year are eligible. In addition, candidates who have had to re-sit examinations or who have faced disciplinary sanctions, as well as civil servants, are not eligible.

Hundreds affected

Following the age limitation criteria, more than 300 students at the University of Buea have missed out on selection.

Although students across the country are affected, the group at the University of Buea is believed to be one of the biggest as a large portion of the students at the university come from conflict-ridden anglophone regions. The instability in these regions has affected economic activity, in turn affecting households, with parents struggling to fund their children’s studies.

These students were outraged when they could not find their names on the list of beneficiaries issued earlier in November.

“With a GPA of 2.93, I was shocked that my name was not on the list. This is very disappointing,” a fourth-year student, who asked to remain anonymous, told University World News.

In an unsigned letter, a group of students from the University of Buea affected by the decision expressed their frustration, calling on the school authorities to plead their cases with the minister of higher education.

“While we understand the need for criteria to allocate resources, we cannot ignore the grim reality faced by students from the crisis-hit English-speaking zones of north-west and south-west [Cameroon]. The persistent challenges posed by the anglophone crisis have not only disrupted academic activities but have also endangered the lives of students who brave the odds to pursue education. The sacrifices made by these students, some of whom have tragically lost their lives, should not be overlooked,” the letter noted.

“It is disheartening to note that the recent decision to allocate the presidential grant based on age rather than merit exacerbates the difficulties faced by anglophone students. Many view the grant as a lifeline, a means to subsidise their education costs and alleviate the financial burdens they bear due to the ongoing crisis,” the students wrote.

However, the vice-chancellor of the University of Buea advised that the students accept their fate because the decision was general and applicable to all higher education institutions in the country.

“We are applying the decision of the hierarchy. It is a policy decision by the ministry of higher education and not that of the university,” he said earlier this month.

“The age elimination criterion is unjust and discriminatory. It sends a false message to the older students that their achievements are somehow less valuable than that of younger students. It goes against the original intention by the head of state to drive academic excellence,” the letter from the group stated.

Academic excellence still important

Higher education authorities, however, say the objective of the academic excellence award remains the same.

“The academic excellence award is intended to reward and encourage the quest for excellence in all areas of theoretical and practical knowledge with a view to promoting the reputation and competitiveness of Cameroon’s higher education system,” the minister’s decision notes.

The decision also emphasised that “the academic excellence is awarded each year depending on budgetary resources available”.

It should be recalled that the head of state, in his speech on 31 December 2009 to the nation, allocated an annual budget of FCFA3 billion for the scholarship award.

According to higher education authorities, the state budget is not elastic and so the award depends on the availability of budgetary resources.

“The university student population has more than doubled since the scholarship scheme was initiated while the budget remains the same. Higher education institutions, both public and private, have multiplied,” Professor Jean-Paul Mbia, a technical adviser to the ministry, told University World News.

The state universities, alone, have increased from eight in 2010 to 11 in 2023.

“The state, alone, cannot do everything. There are other scholarship schemes offered by stakeholders in the higher education sector from which students who perform extremely well, irrespective of age, can benefit,” Mbia said.

He cited the case of the University of Buea that launched the Kate Kanyi-Tometi Excellence Fund at the 2023 matriculation ceremony. Kanyi-Tometi is a businesswoman who is supporting academically achieving students with disabilities.

“Some 829 students with outstanding academic achievements and 171 students with disabilities will benefit from this fund for the 2023-24 academic year,” the vice- chancellor announced at the matriculation ceremony.