Monday, May 21, 2007

Africa’s best universities are collapsing through mismanagement and neglect

Lydia Polgreen:

Thiany Dior usually rises before dawn, tiptoeing carefully among thin foam mats laid out on the floor as she leaves the cramped dormitory room she shares with half a dozen other women. It was built for two.

In the vast auditorium at the law school at Cheikh Anta Diop University, she secures a seat two rows from the front, two hours before class. If she sat too far back, she would not hear the professor’s lecture over the two tinny speakers, and would be more likely to join the 70 percent who fail their first- or second-year exams at the university.

Those who arrive later perch on cinderblocks in the aisles, or strain to hear from the gallery above. By the time class starts, 2,000 young bodies crowd the room in a muffled din of shuffling paper, throat clearing and jostling. Outside, dozens of students, early arrivals for the next class, mill about noisily.

“I cannot say really we are all learning, but we are trying,” said Ms. Dior. “We are too many students.”

Africa’s best universities, the grand institutions that educated a revolutionary generation of nation builders and statesmen, doctors and engineers, writers and intellectuals, are collapsing. It is partly a self-inflicted crisis of mismanagement and neglect, but it is also a result of international development policies that for decades have favored basic education over higher learning even as a population explosion propels more young people than ever toward the already strained institutions.

The decrepitude is forcing the best and brightest from countries across Africa to seek their education and fortunes abroad and depriving dozens of nations of the homegrown expertise that could lift millions out of poverty.

The Commission for Africa, a British government research organization, said in a 2005 report that African universities were in a “state of crisis” and were failing to produce the professionals desperately needed to develop the poorest continent. Far from being a tool of social mobility, the repository of a nation’s hopes for the future, Africa’s universities have instead become warehouses for a generation of young people for whom society has little use and who can expect to be just as poor as their uneducated parents.

“Africa’s Storied Colleges, Jammed and Crumbling”

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