Atomic umbrellas

The headline news in the papers yesterday was that the higher education minister has announced plans to abolish the ‘atomic umbrella’. What, I asked a friend of mine who has just finished public university, is a ‘parapluie atomique’? Apparently, in Ivorian French, this is a rule that when you’re signed on at university, you can’t be forced to leave until you’ve decided to finish. This explains why thousands of students – notably members of the mafia-like Fesci students union – were officially students for ten, twenty years with discounted bus travel and university accommodation. I asked my friend what the possible justification for such a system could be in the first place. As I understood it, it’s because it would be seen as irresponsible for the state to let people leave university, if there was nothing for them to do, so the state allows people to continue in education as long as they want so they can officially remain the ‘eternal student’.

I found this one a difficult one to get my head around. Last week on the state tv news we saw students allocated their university places – if you have passed your bacallaureate, the state then tells you to study X and Y institution (I think you have a certain amount of choice on the subject). When you leave university, the expectation seems to be that the state then has the job of telling you where you will go next and what you will do.

I don’t quite understand why in one of Africa’s most pro-West, capitalist states, this sort of institutionalised thinking persists. Given that the public sector is likely to decline in coming years, it seems very unhealthy. At a campaign meeting in Cocody in the run-up to the legislative elections last month the leader of the delegation of ‘youth’ requested that the candidate ‘create projects for us’. That said, yesterday evening I sat in a large hall with the rest of the media in Ivory Coast and heard the president tell us that ‘he has lots of projects for us’. Great.

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