By Karim Okanla
Back in the colonial era, Dahomey – present-day Benin – was known as the Latin Quarter of Africa. Beninese students, who received French scholarships to pursue their studies at the regional University of Dakar, Senegal, or in one of the many institutions of higher learning in France, were said to be among the top performers and achievers.
At the same time, many were known to speak out against French colonial rule and staging student strikes. Before Benin became independent in August 1960, some French authorities perceived Beninese students studying in France as troublemakers. Due to their political activities, a few of those students were eventually denied their scholarships and had to return home.
After independence, the education sector got top attention from the new authorities – but things changed in October 1972, when an army officer, Matthieu Kerekou, staged a military coup and declared a nation-wide revolution to reclaim what he called “the country’s freedom from neo-colonialists”. Later, his regime converted to Marxist-Leninist ideology overnight, declaring war on anything that sounded or looked Western. Previous programmes of study and course contents were dumped, and replaced with new curricula largely inspired from the USSR, Communist China and Cuba. Eastern bloc countries offered hundreds of scholarships and fellowships to young Beninese students.
At the time, Benin’s government decided that just anyone could qualify to teach at high school level. All that was needed was to complete a so-called “military and patriotic service”. After this one-year training, young people were dispatched to remote areas to take up teaching positions in junior and senior high schools.
Qualified educators went into self-imposed exile to work in a better scholarly environment. Expectedly, national education standards fell sharply, and by the late 1980s, the education system was near collapse and endless strikes made matters worse.
In the early 1990s, however, Benin’s historic National Conference ushered in a new era. Major advances have since been made in education. The gross enrolment rate has increased from a base of 49.7 % in 1990 to 96 % in 2004, and girls’ enrolment from 36 % in 1990 to 84 % in 2004. There are no school fees in Benin any longer, and school is compulsory from age 6 through to age 11. Nonetheless, major constraints and challenges remain: The overall adult literacy rate is about 40 %. Only 25 % of women are literate.
The education sector in Benin is now fully liberalised. Private institutions of higher learning are mushrooming. There are not many state-run institutions of higher learning in Benin. The government did split the University of Abomey-Calavi, which used to be the only one, into many schools across the nation. Thus Porto-Novo now has a law school for court magistrates, while there is Centre for Research in Mathematics in Dangbo and a journalism school is currently being established in Parakou.
In general, public and private institutions have very few formal ties with one another. However, many lecturers teach at both public and private institutions, given the low level of remuneration.
Many education entrepreneurs have entered into partnership agreements with higher institutions of learning in Europe and North America. Currently, a group of professors from Princeton University in the USA are setting up an African School of Economics (ASE) in partnership with the state-run University of Abomey-Calavi.
Today, students have the choice between completing French-style curricula and attending colleges modelled on American universities. Many believe that degrees earned at the latter carry more weight. The fascination with Anglo-Saxon-style higher learning keeps growing. A new university, the Barack Obama International Afro-American University is already open for business. It is funded and run by Benin nationals without US government involvement.
In Benin, the minimum required to teach at the university level is a master’s degree, and past experience in international organisations is a plus. Moreover, business managers from the finance sector are increasingly serving as lecturers and supervisors.
No doubt, Benin needs qualified professionals. There is, for instance, an acute lack of medical doctors. The bad news is that Beninese physicians have access to a recently introduced French visa programme. France continues to be a magnet to many highly-trained professionals, not only medical doctors.
Private sector university
Today, private entrepreneurs have the freedom to set up institutions of primary, secondary and higher learning. Doctor Octave Houdegbe, a former government minister in the Republic of Central Africa, did something that many back then called ludicrous: In Cotonou, Benin’s commercial capital, he founded what is today Houdegbe North American University (HNAUB) in 1992.
Houdegbe is originally from Benin. Twenty years ago, HNAUB offered only a limited range of courses, but it has grown into a full-fledged university. Houdegbe is the owner, financier and president-chancellor of HNAUB. He says his ambition is to train quality graduates, in a bid to promote excellence not only in Benin but in the entire West African region. He insists that all students must raise their proficiency in the English language.
Tuition fees were recently increased to the equivalent of almost $ 950 per semester, which is quite high by Benin standards. But since many students belong to well-off families in Nigeria, an oil-producing country, the high cost is no big issue. HNAUB is bilingual. More than 80 % of courses is offered in English, the rest in French. There is also a German section which is attracting a growing number of foreign language students each year. Most students (80 %) are from Nigeria, but others come from as far afield as Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Egypt and even Iraq. HNAUB is growing fast: the current student body is over 6,500.
Lecturers and professors hail mostly from Benin and Nigeria, but some are American or Middle-East nationals. Most hold masters degrees or PhDs earned in European or North American Universities, with many years teaching experience, or service in international organisations. Most degrees offered to date are bachelor degrees, but doctoral degrees in medicine and pharmaceutical studies are also being offered in collaboration with university teaching hospitals in Nigeria. HNAUB is also cooperating with several institutions of higher learning in the USA.
In general, the training of university graduates at HNAUB has led them to expand their views and horizons. Many students now realise that their native country, no matter how big or populous, can only tackle development challenges if they work hand in hand with professionals from other nations. In many respects, this strengthens the private sector and civil society organisations.
University education in West Africa is not only producing new brains to support development efforts. It is also helping to raise standards in the areas of political governance and lawmaking.