Cameroon’s Parliament has approved a higher education reform bill aimed at modernising and improving the quality of university education – and, significantly, it will officially recognise the two sub-systems of public university education in the country – one English, and one French.
According to officials, two key reforms the new legislation envisages include the strengthening of the economic autonomy of universities and addressing the challenge of having a public system in which nine institutions are francophone and two are anglophone.
“The higher education system used this far was developed since 2001. After 22 years, things have evolved in university programmes. That is why we had to introduce some innovations. There was also a need to address the concerns of the English sub-system of education,” said Wilfred Gabsa Nyongbet, secretary general in the ministry of higher education.
The 2001 higher education law and the 1998 law to lay down guidelines on education in Cameroon (which covers early childhood, primary, secondary, technical, and teacher training education) existed, he said, after the bill was defended in parliament on 16 June.
Recognising two sub-systems
Article 4(3) of the 2023 Higher Education legislation now provides that “the state shall ordain and organise the system of higher education by taking into account the specificities of the two education sub-systems, Anglo-Saxon and francophone, as a contributing ingredient to the influence and performance of the higher education system”.
Each sub-system, according to the lawmakers, is “characterised by a body of specific and cohesive principles, which reflect its historical, cultural and philosophical peculiarities”.
According to Professor Simo Bobda of the University of Yaoundé 1, there has been no recognition of the existence of two education sub-systems in higher education (universities) in Cameroon prior to the bill.
By contrast, as far back as 1998, the law that governs the other tiers of education (primary, secondary, teacher training) had already explicitly recognised that Cameroon had two education sub-systems, each preserving specificities in its certification and assessment methods (as well as in pedagogic approaches), he explained.
Prior to the June 2023 bill, the only texts which recognised the existence of sub-systems in higher education were the decrees establishing the universities of Buea and of Bamenda (in 1993 and 2010 respectively) which chartered them as universities “in the Anglo-Saxon tradition”.
Language division contributes to conflict
Only on the basis of this provision was it obtained that English would constitute the language of instruction in both universities, for all substantive programmes other than French language learning. He said that injustice and discrimination, especially in the higher education sector, has proved a flashpoint in the ongoing anglophone crisis.
“This discrimination has been one of the causes of Cameroon’s anglophone crisis, which started off in the education and legal sectors before spiralling into political demands, strikes and armed activity in 2016,” Bobda said.
The anglophone crisis running for its seventh year is a source of turmoil in the two English-speaking regions of the Southwest and Northwest with armed groups and government forces in continuous battle.
Separatists, who have violently enforced a boycott on education since 2017, continued to attack schools, students and education professionals, destroying buildings and depriving hundreds of thousands of children of their fundamental right to education, according to a Human Rights Watch 2023 report.
He added that the fact that the recognition of the two systems and the recognition of common law as the legal system in anglophone regions built up resentment among Anglo-Saxon higher education lecturers, leading to a public protest in 2017.
“We had to go to the streets in protest, especially after the union got information of plans to harmonise the two curricula of all state universities in Cameroon. The reason the government advanced, was to enhance student mobility between universities,” he said.
The lecturers’ union at the universities of Buea and Bamenda objected, on grounds that harmonising their programmes directly with the other French-speaking universities would dilute their Anglo-Saxon specificities, especially since the templates for harmonisation used were strongly inspired by the French-dominant universities, Bobda said.
“After a hard struggle, we obtained the resolution to allow the universities of Buea and Bamenda to harmonise their programmes between themselves (and future universities in the Anglo-Saxon tradition could harmonise their programmes within them). We are happy the new law now comes to lay to rest the long-existing discrimination,” Bobda said.
Protection of both sub-systems
Experts say the new law will protect the Anglo-Saxon system of education from abuse just as the reforms that recognised the common law did in the legal system.
“Before the crisis, we had cases of French-speaking lecturers sent to teach in the two English-speaking universities, French-speaking magistrates who could not express themselves in English were sent to work in the anglophone regions, with challenges in communication.
The new law will protect each of the systems and prevent any unwarranted invasion or dominance of one language over the other,” Dr Livinus Esambe Njume, a lecturer and a member of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative Cameroon, told University World News.
Another key innovation in the June 2023 higher education reforms is the creation of entrepreneurial universities. The new law permits universities to create and run their own businesses.
“The government cannot do it all alone with the surge in university population and unemployment challenges. Building en entrepreneurial spirit in our universities provides opportunities for additional sources of income for them,” Jacques Fame Ndongo, the minister of higher education, explained after defending the bill in parliament.
Fame Ndongo said innovation in higher education is a continuous process that must reflect the realities of every country. “Higher education reforms are the key to quality growth. We are permanently in this process, moving at a pace that reflects the realities of the country,” he said.
Source: University World News