Following the death of two university students on April 10, 2017 I struggle to find the right words, specially when thinking about the journey that must have been theirs to get to university and more so the journey that is theirs as they try to make it through the system. University students in Niger have to be brave to thrive when an academic year takes sometimes 18 months instead of the regular 9-12 months, when sessions happen late, when student scholarships come in late, when the needed resources to undertake innovative research often lack… I would not say that Niger’s future completely rests on university students for the make-up of our socioeconomic systems is not (and should not be) unipolar. I do believe however that we cannot reimagine a new future for the country without properly investing in our institutions of higher learning – and an investment in any institution begins with its human capital, here students. The gross enrolment rate for tertiary is less than 2% (see Figure 1).
In part due to global calls for basic education for all (EFA), policies and government expenditures in recent decades have put an emphasis on primary and secondary education. It is notable to point out a shift in the trend in investments in tertiary as a percentage of government expenditure on education (see Figure 2). Since 2010, the government has expanded the number of universities to cater to the growing needs and demands of higher education. This is a worthy investment: studies have linked higher education to improved economic opportunities for the individual and society at large. Most importantly, universities are sites for intellectual creativity; they are also spaces where societies reimagine their futurs and experiment with ideas, concepts and materials to create something new and build on existing knowledge.
When university students say nothing about the state of a nation or the state of what they learn or the way they learn about history and the present, then there is no learning at all. Universities are by design spaces where people question a society without fear of being violently harassed. A struggle of ideas. I often say that I enjoy the status of “student” while it lasts because as a student you are forgiven for making mistakes, you are forgive for asking “uneasy” questions, and you are forgiven for questioning. Then why and how should students exercising the free expression of their discontent with the system be submitted to violent repression? University students are a powerful force, one that politicians have taken to the habits of turning into “political” pawns when elections loom. They are also a force capable of demanding change and be heard.
As our nation mourns the loss of these young men, I hope we reflect on the purpose and the highly symbolic value of these institutions. Here are five points that come to mind:
1) These incidents are a further reminder that solutions are best found when ideas confront each other on a space where all parties feel safe and free to speak – when a system is in crisis, the more “powerful” party must bring itself to the level of the other parties, listen and appease the climate to allow fruitful conversations. In my second year at Harvard, Ayaan Hirsi Ali a well-known author of Infidel (2007) and controversial voice joined one of the university’s centers as a fellow. When a set of students expressed their discontent with the center’s choice to the school’s leadership, I personally felt listened to as a student. More importantly, despite the difficulty of the conversation (free speech, diversity of voices, etc.), I felt my voice as a student mattered. We need to make students feel and know that their voices matter even if there are disagreements.
2) Find a commonality of interests and put that at the centre – in this case, it is easy to imagine that everyone wants to work towards an educational system that adequately trains the country’s youth.
3) There are some valid demands being made. There are also many constraints, some of which many of us not in the decision-making circles may not even known about or understand… Policies change and could change drastically when a state committed to providing social aid faces economic difficulties or increased expenses in other areas. In this case, it is important to take time to fully explain the implications of those changes to the ones most concerned, and why there are no other (or better) avenues.
4) Students must sustain the demands over a long term agenda and use these platforms to fundamentally change the university’s structures of power and knowledge systems’ creation and dissemination. A movement that I find inspiring has been #DecoloniseEducation (linked with #WhyIsMyCurriculumSoWhite and others)… In the last couple of years, this movement went from South Africa to Oxford and Cambridge… students marched, wrote letters, started and sustained initiatives tailored to their contexts, and gradually universities themselves began to see and acknowledge the need for the changes students demanded. In fact, at a talk at Cambridge University, a professor confessed that his university was using their Black studies department as a means to attract scholars and differentiate itself from other institutions of higher learning in the UK.
5) Most importantly, truth matters even if it hurts individuals today, it is fundamental to instituting a climate of trust and mutual respect. Universities are spaces where sometimes uncomfortable truths and marginal ideas grow into norms, and norms get questioned. This is where it all begins.
(Reflections, comments and ideas welcome)