WHEN he needs new books to teach one of his courses, Professor Ibrahim Abdullah orders at least two from abroad: one for himself, one to give to the university library. If he needs scholarly articles, he writes to his friends overseas and asks them to send copies, since the university cannot afford journal subscriptions.

Fourah Bay College Students

Mr Abdullah is one of the most senior academics at Fourah Bay College, part of the University of Sierra Leone and the oldest institute of higher education in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. Once dubbed the “Athens of west Africa” and a magnet for students across the continent, its decay over the years stands as a metaphor for the small west African nation’s strained post-independence history.

Despite his efforts to boost academic standards, Professor Abdullah this year found his tenured contract terminated. This “unprecedented” move was, he and others claim, in response to his outspoken criticisms of the university’s administration. “If nothing is done in two or three years the place is going to collapse,” he says.

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He is not the only one surprised to find himself without a job. Another academic, Professor Thomas Yormah, was recently asked to take early retirement. The university administration disputes allegations of unfair dismissal, but many find the exit of respected professors perplexing. Sierra Leone suffers from an acute shortage of qualified academics: fewer than 30 professors, according to one count. Professor Abdullah puts the number of professors at Fourah Bay College at seven, catering to over 7,000 students. The vast majority of lecturers have only bachelors or masters degrees.

Students are angry, too. On March 11th the college announced that lectures were to be suspended until students paid their fees. This followed student protests at the college campus, situated on a mountain overlooking Freetown, the capital. On March 14th student demonstrators descended into Freetown and marched on the seat of government. Two days later the government released a statement after a meeting with student leaders, promising concessions on fees. Students were to return to lectures on April 6th, but a strike by academic staff, over pay and conditions, has set the calendar back once more.

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The university’s problems date back decades. The economic crisis of the 1980s meant that, like universities elsewhere across Africa, Fourah Bay College’s public subsidy was slashed. Academics began to leave, precipitating a brain drain that accelerated dramatically in the 1990s during the country’s civil war, when the campus was looted by rebels. Since then explosive population growth, coupled with sustained industrial action by staff over pay, has increased pressures on an already cash-strapped administration. The campus has decayed: today there is no accommodation for students, many of whom come from remote rural regions. “It looks like a squatters’ camp,” says Professor Abdullah.

Recent events have further exacerbated long-standing problems. Sierra Leone’s higher-education system was dealt a heavy blow by the Ebola outbreak. For several months in 2014 and early 2015 all its universities were closed. Disputes over fees subsequently intensified as many students lost the family breadwinner responsible for paying them. Those from rural areas were particularly badly hit, as agricultural activity stalled for over a year.

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Inflation, which today runs at almost 9%, adds to their woes. But the government, whose finances tanked during the Ebola crisis, hopes that a recently signed $37m loan for campus restoration from the Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa will change things. It also aims to wean the country’s eight public universities off public funding, following an IMF recommendation in 2014.

Neither plan offers much of a salve for students, for whom fees remain the pressing issue. Nor for staff: improved facilities mean little unless salaries are competitive with universities abroad. Until that changes, the brain drain will continue. Those like Professor Abdullah will be needed more than ever. [The Economist]