SAINT-LOUIS — The African Virtual University is hardly a new project, as it was first founded in 1997 by the World Bank as an ambitious attempt to expand higher education across the continent. It is now run by some 15 African governments, but officials have looked for ways to expand it as Africa looks to catch up on its technological development.

In July, the chancellor of Gaston Berger University of Saint-Louis, in northern Senegal,  launched Phase Two of the project for multinational support financed by the African Development Bank. The project, in which 27 universities from 21 different countries are involved, represents a chance to both relieve university congestion and democratize higher education.

Professor Bakary Diallo, chancellor of the African Virtual University, with its two main offices in Nairobi and Dakar, says that more than 43,000 African students have already benefited from it.

“The objective now is to reinforce the network of institutions so as to create and manage quality teaching and training,” he says. “The priority is the integration of information and communications technology into all programs.” 

Diallo notes some of the toughest challenges faced by the African Virtual University, from hardware accessibility (because of the smaller number of computers in Africa compared to other parts of the world) and the creation of centers for distance education or access points. Another problem is the lack of a strong enough Internet bandwidth in some places, though mobile networks along with cellphones and tablets could offer a good alternative.

The popularization of distance learning indeed requires “strong political will and very advanced planning,” says Diallo. The chancellor of the African Virtual University says he’s optimistic that Senegal will be key, after officials at the Ministry for Education committed to opening the the Senegalese Virtual University, which is due to start at the beginning of the next school year in January 2014.

Many ways to save

The democratization potential of distance learning also comes with a financial advantage. In Senegal, education is funded by the state, and the government sees a potential windfall in the Virtual University, where a course taught to 200 students on location can be distributed to thousands across the Internet, saving both on facility overhead and traveling.

The Gaston Berger University has 7,000 students on location, making it Senegal’s second-largest higher education institution. Chancellor Amadou Lamine Guèye says he’s hoping the university’s strategic plan will attract an extra 5,000 virtual students by the end of 2016.

Such ramping-up would fulfill the strong demand for higher education from recent high school graduates. And with only about 6% of Africans currently attending university, distance learning is a rare opportunity to push that number higher, says Professor Guèye.

Last year, Senegal spent some $10 million on its 30,000 university students. Because the country will not be able to keep spending more and more money, the government made the development of distance learning a national objective.

For Professor Guèye, this is a smart long-term strategy, and requires the necessary initial investments to expand the program. “As soon as the number of students increases, the costs will fall. Not to mention that there won't be any need to spend on accommodation or food anymore,” he said. “The project will be viable as long as good [Internet] access is guaranteed.”