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College crisis across Africa

STUDENT and faculty revolts loom across much of Africa, as financial crisis and economic austerity drastically cut funding for higher education. Lab equipment, books, even paper and pencils, are in short supply on many campuses. Faculty members at schools like Uganda's Makerere University, one of Africa's most prestigious academic institutions, now spend more time moonlighting than teaching - because triple-digit inflation has cut the real value of their salaries to as little as $100 a month.

The threat of protests by politically volatile students has blocked some proposals to make funds available for academic programs by changing the system of free tuition and board that prevails on most African campuses.

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The University of Khartoum in Sudan delayed plans to begin charging fees this year after students threatened to march in protest against Sudanese President Sadiq al-Mahdi.

``The government is very fearful of the students'' because of their role in the 1985 coup that ousted former President Jaafar al-Nimeiry, says student union president Salah Eldin Elzain, at the university.

Zambia's minister of higher education, Lameck Goma, says that cutbacks forced by ``harsh economic circumstances afflicting our countries'' produce a ``creeping sense of futility'' among students and staff. ``The demand to produce more skilled workers while spending less money can only lead to overcrowding, poor teaching, impoverished research, and frustrated, embittered students and staff,'' he says.

Despite such cutbacks, some African nations are continuing to expand their universities in response to employers seeking trained employees and students yearning for more education.

Zimbabwe is planning a second campus to relieve intense crowding at a national university that has grown 400 percent since 1980, when majority rule brought an explosion of interest in education and opportunity.

And to the chagrin of officials at Kampala's underfunded Makerere University, Ugandan officials last month announced the opening of a second university in October. Such dramatic growth and drastic cutbacks equally reflect the turmoil of higher education in Africa.

The education explosion in Africa began in 1960, as most nations were gaining independence. Enrollment at African universities increased 20-fold in a quarter century, to more than 400,000. Elementary and secondary enrollment quintupled, by far the world's fastest school growth.

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Today, however, some critics say African universities grew too fast. They tend to cost too much, offer weak programs, pour funds into fields that don't promote development, and gobble up money that would be better spent and serve far more students in primary schools, according to a World Bank study.

The bank proposed that African universities cut staff, tighten admissions, make students pay more toward university costs, and eliminate courses that are academically weak. This dramatic proposal became the focus of heated debate even before its formal release last January.

Some educators denounced the World Bank plan as ``neocolonialist.'' University cutbacks would keep the continent in ``a state of dependency for all time'' by undermining the drive to train African professionals and technicians who can replace expatriate experts, said University of Zimbabwe vice-chancellor Walter Kamba last year, as he and other African educators unsuccessfully pressed the World Bank to rethink its stance.

Ironically, World Bank officials praise Mr. Kamba's university as one of the best run in Africa and say others should follow the example of Zimbabwe, which insists that students cover half the cost of their education with loans to be paid back after they graduate.

Both sides in the debate agree that African academic conditions are often grim.

The most extreme case may be the National University of Zaire at Lubumbashi, an impoverished institution with 7,000 students, 500 faculty members, and almost no books, lab equipment, light bulbs, or even toilets. ``The state cares more about the prestige of having a university than the realities of maintaining one,'' says a Roman Catholic priest who taught there.

``They should simply shut it down until government gets serious about education and is prepared to spend money,'' says one alumnus who - like most people in the region interviewed for this story - asked not to be identified by name.

Many students from poor families can't concentrate on their studies because they are literally ``starving,'' the priest says. Their meager living allowances are barely enough to pay for one meal a day, he explains.

``I teach well, but students often fall asleep in my classes'' because they are too weak to pay attention, adds a history professor.

The rector, Lombeya Bosongo Likund'elio, says, ``We know what we have to do'' to improve the campus but ``don't have the money.''

Zaire's notorious corruption compounds campus problems. A decade ago, the Rockefeller Foundation gave money to revive the library - which hadn't bought a book since 1971 - but pulled out because the money disappeared with no books purchased. A history professor charged that the few students from wealthy families can buy good grades, because many underpaid faculty members welcome bribes.

Yet honestly run institutions face similar problems, even in countries committed to higher education. Sudan, for example, devotes 6 percent of its government budget to higher education. But that barely pays faculty salaries and student boarding costs, leaving almost nothing for teaching materials. At the University of Khartoum, mimeographed handouts substitute for textbooks in most classes, political science professor Taisier Ali reports.

Even ill-funded universities can be enormously expensive in African terms. ``We can't afford to study properly,'' Jacob Lushinga, a third-year economics student in Zambia, complained to a visiting reporter.

The annual textbook allowance for scholarship students, $20, buys only one or two books a year, he says. Yet Zambia was spending only 9 cents per pupil on teaching materials in the elementary schools. Such enormous gaps in spending are typical. On average, says the World Bank, African governments spend 50 times as much per university student as per primary pupil. In industrial countries, the ratio is about 2.2 to 1.

Though problems are obvious, solutions are not.

The World Bank says African governments should cut university funding, especially for liberal arts, and transfer money saved to primary schools. That sounds equitable in theory, agrees Mubanga Kashoki, a University of Zambia linguist, but might be dangerous in practice.

``To end with the products of primary education means you end up with more unemployment and delinquency,'' he says. ``It's at the secondary and - more and more - at the university level, that we get productive, employable citizens.''

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