Senegalese Higher Education and the Challenges of (Im)mobility

By Ibra Sene

In the current knowledge-based economy, a university system, which fosters innovative scholarship, through open and original intellectual inquiry, is crucially important for addressing, in an effective way, many challenges that society faces. A close look at the evolution of higher education in Senegal shows that there have been many impediments to the materialization of this model. Since the 1960s, the Senegalese public universities, especially Université Cheikh Anta Diop, have trained the lion’s share of the national workforce in the private and public sectors. Its alumni have assumed leadership positions in many African countries and a number of international organizations. Also, the Senegalese public universities have served as the incubators of important social movements, which contributed a great deal to the strengthening of democracy in the country. Finally, they have ranked constantly among the best francophone higher education institutions.

That being said, for many years, Senegalese higher education has been going through a complex and multi-faceted crisis that has left long-lasting consequences on our public universities. They have not always done a terrific job at making themselves relevant to the larger society, by catering to its most urgent needs. The effects of the structural adjustment programs imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have compounded these difficulties. These programs left the Senegalese universities in complete shambles, with a chronic deterioration of the working conditions of teaching, administrative, and technical staff, but also students. All of this has led to mediocre performance in many areas.

To deal with this crisis, the Senegalese government has convened major national consultations since the early 1970s. In 2013, the latest of these meetings, the National Consultation on the Future of Higher Education in Senegal (CNAES), took place. Its objective was to reform the university system to make sure that its follows international standards but also has a curriculum and a research agenda that are more driven by the socio-economic and developmental needs of the taxpayer.

I would like to use the Mobility Studies frame to analyze this situation. I suggest that this concept is the right tool for a better understanding of this latent crisis, but also for charting a way out of the challenges that the Senegalese public universities face.

The postmodern era brought with it a broad sense of skepticism about many categories of knowledge. It also prompted a tendency to nuance and a deep sense of relativism that are mostly driven by the belief that considerations of power always find their sneaky way into the making of many if not all theories of knowledge. Because of that, these theoretical ways of making sense of the human experience should be revisited and given a more inclusive tone. This would break help break the hegemony of some discourses and bring up the perspectives of all groups in society, especially the less powerful ones.

This is, among other things, what led to a new way of thinking about migration. The alternative concept to “migration” is “mobility” and it focuses on the entire “social universe” of migrants.[1] The global movements of people, capital, ideas, goods, and material culture, which are fundamental markers of the twenty-first century played a crucial role in the emergence and expansion of mobility studies.[2] The mobility studies paradigm developed along with different theoretical and methodological tools. It also touches on many areas such as “studies of corporeal movement, transportation and communications infrastructures, capitalist spatial restructuring, migration and immigration, citizenship and transnationalism, and tourism and travel.”[3]

I use mobility not as seen “through the lens of place, roots, spatial order and belonging,” but rather through the optics of “flow, flux and dynamism.”[4] I contend that this is a useful tool for analyzing the situation of universities in Senegal and other parts of Africa. I would like to take a close look at situations of mobility and immobility and how they may play out in the operation of these universities and the fulfillment of their students, faculty, and the larger society.

We ought to gain a better understanding of the crisis that the Senegalese and other African universities have been dealing with for decades now, in order to rethink the mission assigned to higher education and made it more relevant. To do this we need an analytical frame that takes into account the “relational geographies” of these universities, and which approaches the issue from the angle of flow and “movement that produces cultures,” [5] and not just through the frame of fixity and isolation. Stephen Greenblatt’s edited volume, Cultural Mobility: A Manifesto, tackles this issue and suggests that the paradox that one might see between “mobility” and “rootedness” is only apparent, and that “it is impossible to understand mobility without also understanding the glacial weight of what appears bounded and static.”[6] According to Nina Glick Schiller and Noel B. Salazar, challenging the “conceptual orientations built on binaries of difference” is crucial for a good understanding of the interrelationship between mobility and fixity. This is what they termed as “critical mobility thinking.”[7]

Analyzing the problems that Senegalese and other African universities face, with a transregional perspective in mind, is critical, if we are to develop effective strategies to find solutions. The production of knowledge, a fundamental function of the university, and human mobility are closely related, especially given the dynamic nature of the economy, politics, and cultures in Senegal, other regions of the continent, and the African Diaspora.

Over the last ten years, Senegal and many other African countries have been undertaking ambitious reforms geared toward improving the quality of higher education. Among other things, the emphasis of this work has been on how to design and manage academic research for policy impact, with curricula that give ample room to action learning. This is a system that empowers the learner to develop the critical thinking and leadership skills that are needed for finding sustainable solutions to the problems they tackle. For this to happen, the immobility of/in the university systems has to be shaken up.

The commitment to address these social needs should lead to the intentional development of bottom-up strategies that are based on deep understanding of the social fabric and various local knowledge, knowledge creation, and knowledge transmission models. The problems that the Senegalese and West African societies face today could only be understood through an approach that takes into account the local realities, without neglecting the influence of the global context. Therefore, training leaders who understand these interconnections and who are committed to the common good is crucially important.

The needed reflection and theoretical understanding of the challenges that societies face would necessitate that our universities prepare students for a lifetime of personal and professional growth. This is one of the best guaranties for effective practices in the development of entrepreneurship skills, civic engagement, ethical leadership, cultural competency, inclusion, openness, for the positive transformation of our communities. All of this requires the sharing of resources and collaborations across disciplines and academic institutions. However, in many ways these institutions have evolved so long in immobility and within isolated enclaves that these dynamic relationships could not develop naturally.

There are many factors that have made it difficult for this integrative conception of higher education to take roots in Senegal and other West African countries. Most of these factors come in different shapes and forms, but all stem directly or indirectly from the colonial legacy. The complete neglect of the African systems of knowledge creation and transmission, the predominance of European languages such as English, French, and Portuguese as languages of instruction over African languages were among the most serious roadblocks. One of the consequences of this setup has been an enduring elitism that has prevented universities from serving the interest of their students and that of the communities in which they are situated. This is why the system has done a very poor job at promoting social mobility, hence the rapidly increasing number of people who have lost trust in it.

Another big problem is that the borders drawn by and inherited from the colonizer strictly restricted the areas of influence of the universities. They have been designed and have been operating with little to no interaction among themselves. Often times, universities from African countries have developed more partnerships with non-African institutions than with each other. This is true even for neighboring countries such as Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Mali, and Mauritania. In so doing these countries and their respective institutions of higher learning have missed countless opportunities to join forces, mutualize resources, and/or learn from each other’s experience. There is still a lot of neocolonial influence on other key aspects of higher education, such us the curriculum, the funding sources, but also accreditation.

For Senegalese and other African universities to become relevant and regain the capacity to deal efficiently with society’s major preoccupations, they will have to take on the immobility and the fixity that have defined them for quite some time. That is why, the best way to tackle the problems that these institutions face would be to approach them with a transregional perspective in mind and cultivate a culture of institutional accountability. This would allow for the production of useful scholarship and an education that could challenge students enough to transform them into responsible and ethical citizens and leaders. This environment could foster useful and sustainable university partnerships, including working with the diaspora and turning the scourge of brain drain into a significant brain gain.


[1] Jeffrey H. Cohen and Ibrahim Sirkeci, Cultures of Migration, University of Texas Press, 2011.

[2] Regimes of Mobility Across the Globe Nina Glick Schiller and Noel B. Salazar

[3] Kevin Hannam, Mimi Sheller, and John Urry, “Editorial: Mobilities, Immobilities and Moorings,” Mobilities, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1–22, March 2006.

[4] Ole B. Jensen, “Flows of Meaning, Cultures of Movements – Urban Mobility as Meaningful Everyday Life Practice,” Mobilities, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2009, p. 141.

[5] Ole B. Jensen, “Flows of Meaning, Cultures of Movements – Urban Mobility as Meaningful Everyday Life Practice,” Mobilities, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2009, pp. 139–158.

[6] Stephen Greenblatt, ed. Cultural Mobility: A Manifesto, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009, pp. 250-253.

[7] Regimes of Mobility Across the Globe Nina Glick Schiller and Noel B. Salazar

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