Students attending state-owned universities in Cameroon do not pay tuition. Instead they pay an annual registration fee of 50,000 FCFA [98 US Dollars]. This fee was instituted in the wake of the 1993 university reforms which decentralized the University of Yaounde (then the country's lone university) and created five new universities across the country.
According to a study of these reforms,
“This fee was irrespective of degree programme or kind of degree pursued. Although the fee amount is a substantial increase from the 3,500 CFA francs (about $6) charged to students previously, it remains far below the fees paid by students in the country’s private primary and secondary schools. Registration fees paid by students have quickly become one of the universities’ principal sources of income, contributing about 30% of their recurrent budgets. The rest of the funds (over 70%) are provided by government.”
In the past decade, attempts by state universities to increase this fee through a variety of mandatory fees has generally been met with stiff resistance by students and even higher education authorities (e.g. the University of Buea’s discontinued annual development fund). In fact, some have even advocated the cancellation, pure and simple, of the registration fee on grounds that it is still too expensive for the average Cameroonian family – this in spite of the fact that, as another report has stressed, “parents and students were still able to respond to the calls of private universities paying tuition fees, which were three to eight times the registration fees in state universities (at least $250)”.
In May-June 2005 for example, the University of Buea (UB) was crippled by a strike initiated in part because additional fees were tagged to the 50,000 FCFA registration fee. The strike action ended only after the Minister of Higher education signed an agreement with the student union stating that:
"… the school fees of the University of Buea has been reduced to FCFA 50.000 flat, with all other additional payments like medical fees, Departmental & Faculty fees scraped; with the assurance that the students' caution fees should be refunded to them at the end of their programmes".
The same scenario repeated itself during the Nov/Dec strike of 2006 at the same university. Earlier that year, the University Senate instituted a series of professional-oriented graduate programs (such as the much sought-after MBA) for the 2006/2007 academic year. A number of distance-learning programs were also planned for the same academic year. However, the university did not have the financial resources to get these programs off the ground and the State was not ready to dish out the necessary funds. Consequently, university authorities sought to make the new programs self-sustaining by instituting tuition. Students, however, insisted that the proposed tuition be scrapped and the cost of all graduate programs maintained at the 50,000 FCFA.
In an interview with The Post newspaper, former Vice Chancellor, Prof. Lambi - under whose reign the new graduate programs had been instituted - explained the rationale behind the increases:
“It should be noted that the state had fixed the amount for university registration at FCFA 50,000 and up to this moment, we have been paying that even for postgraduate programmes. Since many students request for programmes which we do not offer at the postgraduate level; considering that it entails bringing experts from out of the country and other costs, I had suggested to the Minister that they pay something extra. Since we made the proposal, the Minister is yet to reply and that is why we have not given out admission letters to anybody. But if they take postgraduate programmes that we already run, there is no problem; they will pay the FCFA 50,000. For specialised programmes like Masters in Business Administration, MBA, which has been demanded by many, we are proposing that they pay FCFA 750,000, but the Minister has not given his accord, so we are yet to give admission to anybody. You would want to know that mostly those in industries and big business enterprises have demanded the MBA programme."
This explanation literarily fell on deaf ears and in the end, the students prevailed. In another agreement, this time between the Student Union and the new university administration, university authorities agreed, according to an article in The Post titled UB Strike Pays Off, “to step down fees at all levels of degree programmes in the university to FCFA 50,000, while those who had paid more than the amount for postgraduate programmes would be refunded the balance”.
The students had won yet another battle against the university administration but was this victory really to their advantage?
One of the primary goals of the 1993 reforms was to:
“make [university] programmes more varied, professional, adapted and responsive to the needs of the job market, by providing more programmes that would enable graduates find employment in the private sector as well as create self employment”.
However, as a result of the students’ victory, most of the new graduate programs were put on the back burner due to a lack of funding. Distance-learning programs which were to be based on partnerships with top foreign universities and academics are yet to see the light of day due to prohibitive costs. The result is that UB will continue the old-age tradition of producing thousands of unemployable “generalists” with no specific marketable skills. From the university’s perspective,, the result has been the loss of revenue streams particularly from companies that were willing to pay the “big bucks” to (re)train their staff.
Whatever one’s stance on the issue of tuition at state-owned universities, it is obvious that UB and UB students are the ultimate losers here… And the irony is that other state universities - even those like the university of Yaounde whose students always lead the call for the abolition of registration fees - are making major strides in setting up professional degree programs.
The Example from other State Universities
It will come as a surprise to many that other Cameroon state universities have degree programs where students pay tuition which, in some cases, is more than 10 times the official registration fee.
One of the flagship programs of the Fotso Victor Institute of Technology in Bandjoun (which is part of the University of Dschang) is the undergraduate program in Information Technology created under the auspices of the Projet Comètes. This program has become so popular that it is being offered as an e-learning degree to students in Central and West Africa (The « licence de Technologie Informatique, option Informatique et Réseau, spécialité Concepteur-Développeur Réseaux-Internet (LTCDRI3»). The annual tuition of this program is 400,000FCFA [784 US Dollars] for Cameroonian students and 600,000FCFA [1176 US Dollars] for foreign students. [As an aside, Monday's issue of the Post newspaper carries an interview with the French ambassador to Cameroon who reveals that plans are underway to extend the Projet Comètes to the University of Buea. Will UB students allow this program to take root?
A similar program is offered by the Computer Science department of the University of Douala, in collaboration with the University of Laval in Canada and the African Virtual University. Courses are beamed in real time from the University of Laval with students in both universities following the same lectures. Tutoring is however done by local faculty in Douala. The tuition for the joint program is 630,000 FCFA [1235 US Dollars] per year (as opposed to about 10.000 US Dollars for students in Laval).
The newly inaugurated Digital Law Center at the University of Yaounde II in Soa will begin offering graduate and doctoral degrees in Fundamental Law, Ethics and Human Rights during the 2007/2008 academic year. The degree programs are offered in collaboration with the University of Nantes in France. The courses were already being offered to students through the Yaounde Digital Campus of the Agence Universitaire Francais (AUF). According to the University’s Vice Rector, tuition is expected to be “FCFA 650,000 and above” (see The Post).
This is just a small sample of the plethora of tuition-based degree programs currently being offered by state-universities in Francophone Cameroon. It is estimated that about 90% of students who graduate from programs such as the one offered by IUT Bandjoun are employed within six months. Students in these programs have understood that quality education does not come cheap, and that in this age of globalization and knowledge economy, marketable skills are what matter most.
Getting Student Buy-in
Without doubt, UB students are short-changing themselves by consistently rejecting all degree programs that cost more than the official registration fee, irrespective of the cost and infrastructure needed to launch and sustain the programs. That said, high tuition fees do not automatically translate into good quality programs; university authorities should be able to demonstrate that these new courses are actually worth their weight in gold.
Also, if these programs stand a chance of ever getting off the ground, then UB authorities must device new strategies for involving students (through the student union for example) when these programs are still in the design or conceptual stages. This might be the only way of getting the indispensable student buy-in - a tough call in a system where conciliation and concertation is generally seen as a sign of weakness.
As long as students believe that proposed fee hikes are merely get-rich-quick schemes by university authorities, then it is unlikely that they will ever agree to any fee hike. And in the end, it will be the University of Buea, that famous “place to be”, that will ultimately lose its luster and become the lame duck of Cameroon’s university system.