Ambitious investment goals have been set for the next decade to ensure universal access to education. With more than 50% of Gabon’s population under the age of 19, a major expansion programme in primary, secondary and higher education is under way as the government aims at strengthening teaching standards and delivering better quality education by overcoming the obstacles that hinder the sector’s performance, mainly high repetition and drop-out rates, and overcrowding in classrooms. The rapid growth of the Gabonese economy has meant a need for skilled labour, particularly in growth industries like forestry and mining, and the country is increasingly turning towards the private sector to align curricula with job market offerings.

PERFORMANCE: Measuring student performance in Gabon is a practice the government is working on standardising through a central mechanism for data collection and analysis, which was established in 2010 at the Ministry of Education (MoE). The first survey was launched in January 2011 and results are expected before the end of 2012. In the meantime, indicators point to relative progress. Literacy rates for adults (over 15) rose from 84% in 2004 to 88% in 2009. Enrolment rates in primary schools increased from 90% in 2003 to 94.7% in 2010, one of the highest rates recorded in sub-Saharan Africa. Success rates for the national exam (Brevet) granting entry to high school, orlycée, increased from 28.4% in 2010 to 38.3% in 2011. However, this exam is set to be eliminated by 2016.

Success rates at the baccalaureate exam in 2011 reached 50.49%, advancing 16 percentage points over 2010. The government aims at bringing this rate up to 80% by 2020. To achieve its targets, Gabon will need to overcome a number of obstacles, which currently weigh heavily on performance.

High urbanisation rates and the rise in Gabon’s young population have led to overcrowding in classrooms, especially at the primary and secondary levels. The average class size is 45 students in public schools, but can reach up to 60 in some urban areas. As a result, dropout rates are high and repetition is common; the average student is 22 at the end of secondary school.

GOVERNMENT PLANS: Reforms are being carried out under the government’s 2010-20 national programme for education, better known as les Etats Généraux de l’Education. A national education conference held in May 2010 outlined the country’s targets and plans to better the system by 2020. Reforms include improving governance at all levels in the sector, enhancing the quality of education by reviewing school programmes and improving teacher training, as well as building more schools and rehabilitating existing ones.

The programme, under which the government plans to spend CFA1.7trn (€2.55bn) by 2020, is overseen by the Ministry of National Education, Higher Education, Technical Education and Professional Training, in accordance with the Emerging Gabon strategy. Gabon is currently carrying out an ambitious investment programme, spending CFA38.4bn (€57.6m) in 2012 alone, to boost sector infrastructure and increase teaching staff. Some 17,700 new teachers will be employed across all levels by 2020, with over half to be placed in secondary schools. Education spending is low compared to other African nations, hovering around 2.8% of GDP in the past decade, while in South Africa and Senegal spending has averaged 5.4% and 5.1% of GDP, respectively.

PRESCOOL: Preschool education is still a new offering in Gabon. It was not until 2002 that the decision was made to introduce pre-primary classes in all public schools. While most public pre-school education still takes place in primary schools, the private sector has taken on an important share of the segment. Provisional data from the MoE show that out of the 41,600 students who attended preschool in the 2010/11 school year, only 30% were enrolled in public schools, while 70% attended private non-denominational or religious schools. “Pre-primary education will provide our children with the basic knowledge and skills to enter primary school, increase pass rates, and reduce the number of drop-outs, especially at the secondary level,” Alfred Mouyenzi, deputy director-general at the General Directorate of Statistics told OBG. However, demand far exceeds the number of places on offer. Therefore, under its 2010-20 investment programme, the government will allocate CFA25bn (€37.5m) for the construction of 221 separate pre-primary schools or 1326 new classrooms. Additionally, 445 existing classrooms are expected to undergo renovation.

Qualifying personnel to teach preschool is the next challenge the government is looking to overcome by investing CFA1.7bn (€2.5m) to train some 5000 teachers by 2020. Moreover, to extend preschool education to rural areas, 1500 housing units are being planned to accommodate preschool teachers.

PRIMARY EDUCATION: Primary school lasts six years. However, enrolment can go up to the age of 19 due to high rates of repetition, which increased from 30% in 2006 to 38% in 2008. The government aims to bring this down to 10% by 2015. According to UNICEF, the net primary school enrolment rate stands at 96%, placing Gabon on solid footing to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education by 2015. In 2011 the public sector had 3820 primary classrooms while the private sector contributed 4853 classrooms. According to the MoE, 47.1% of the 281,749 students enrolled in primary education attended private schools during the 2010/11 academic year.

Reforms are under way to address problems such as absenteeism and overcrowded classrooms by investing in infrastructure and strengthening teacher training in cooperation with international partners such as the Coopération Française and UNESCO. The Japan International Cooperation Agency has also been active in upgrading and building primary schools in Gabon.

By 2020, the country hopes to see the number of students down to 35 per classroom in both primary school and pre-primary education thanks to more schools and better qualified teachers, especially in the rural areas of the country. Many students from these regions move to urban areas to pursue their secondary and higher education, so standardised preparation across the country is important to their success.

SECONDARY SCHOOL: Secondary school lasts seven years. Students spend the first four years in collège, or middle school, and go on for another three years at lycée, the equivalent to high school. The 2011/12 academic year was a relatively stable one for secondary education with limited teacher strikes. Lessons kicked off at the end of September instead of October as the country prepared to host the African Cup of Nations in January-February 2012. Similar to the primary segment, the secondary level suffers from a lack of efficient infrastructure and sufficient qualified personnel.

Infrastructure is being renovated and new schools built to boost capacity and reduce overcrowding, especially in Libreville and its surroundings. The government is allocating CFA27m (€40,500) to build more than 30 middle schools in the capital alone.

In the meantime, renovation works started in July 2011 at a number of secondary institutions including Lycée Léon Mba and Lycée Paul Indjendjet Gondjout. Both are expected to be completed by November 2012. More recent works began at Lycée Charles Méfane in April 2012, as well as at some 17 provincial high schools. Next in line will be the science high school at Koulamoutou, where work was due to start in September 2012.

The government aims to enhance the quality of education by focusing more on science, computer studies and languages by orienting more students towards these fields starting from secondary school, and well as introducing a second language such as Spanish, German, Arabic or Russian starting from the first year in middle school. To address the lack of qualified personnel, the government plans to invest more than CFA7bn (€10.5m) to train some 9100 teachers over five years at Libreville’s Ecole Normale Superieure.

TERTIARY EDUCATION: Three institutions comprise public tertiary education: The Omar Bongo University (UOB) established in 1971, the Masuku University of Science and Technology established in 1985 in Franceville and the University of Health Sciences established in 2002. As part of the government’s plan to provide better quality education, the Masuku University of Sciences and Technology and the University of Health Sciences have been undergoing renovation works since July 2011, set for completion by November 2012.

In line with the Emerging Gabon strategy, new universities and specialised institutions are also in the pipeline, including a graduate school for study of tropical diseases in Franceville; the Institute of Gas and Oil in Port-Gentil; the University of Oyem, which specialises in agriculture; the University of Mouila specialising in architecture; and a school of applied sciences related to the wood industry. Such offerings are expected to help graduates meet job market demands in the future and reduce the number of students studying abroad at great cost to the government. At the national conference on education, the government announced it would spend over CFA8bn (€12m) over five years to train and take on 550 teachers and instructors.

In recent years, student protests have demanded better quality university education. This continued in the 2011/12 academic year, with the government adopting a series of measures to ease discontent, including boosting classroom capacity at a number of institutions. Room was made for more than 7500 students at a number of public institutions between September 2011 and May 2012. Additionally, a new agency was created to administer scholarships and practical training courses for students.

SCHOLARSHIPS & RENOVATIONS: Scholarships were granted to 13,443 students in 2011/12, up from 12,807 in 2010/11. In addition, there is a fund of more than CFA2bn (€3m) to help students who are no longer eligible for traditional scholarships. In 2011 total scholarships to students in secondary and tertiary education was as much as CFA39.2bn (€58.8m), according to local media reports. Costs are expected to rise in the near future after the government increased scholarships by 25% for those studying in Gabon and by 10% for those studying abroad. As well as state-funded scholarships, the French embassy helps finance 50 scholarships known as “bourses concorde” for students who wish to acquire advanced degrees abroad.

Housing at the country’s three main universities have also been refurbished, but more must be done to reduce overcrowding. At Libreville’s student housing, for example, three to four students occupy one room that was intended for two. National insurance has also been extended to all students (see Health overview).

PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION PROGRAMMES: In light of improving governance and leadership under its Gabon Services programme, another main pillar of the Emerging Gabon strategy, the government has invested in a number of training programmes to improve the skills of the public administration workforce. A three-year joint programme, “Emergence” was launched with the French business school HEC Paris in 2011 to enhance management capacity at all levels of the Gabonese government and train a total of 13,000 public servants. So far, 2500 students have attended seminars.

Gabon’s national school of administration also has partnerships with the national school of administration in Quebec, HEC Paris, and the Management Development Institute of Singapore (MDIS). The five-year partnership signed with MDIS gives at least 10 students the opportunity to travel to Singapore each year and enrol on the institute’s management programmes.

MORE DEGREES: Gabon is looking to diversify curricula and provide students with more degree offerings and qualifications to match job market demands. It also aims to develop the country into a regional and continental centre of excellence in higher education. New offerings at public universities include the introduction of a new degree on environment and sustainable development at UOB for the 2012/13 academic year in collaboration with the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa (Communauté Economique et Monétaire de l’Afrique Centrale, CEMAC). New programmes at existing institutions will complement the development of specialised facilities catering to growth sectors such as oil and gas and the wood industry. These programmes are expected to attract a number of students from Central Africa. The new degree on environment and sustainable development at UOB will be funded by the Gabonese government and is expected to attract students from the CEMAC region.

Business management programmes are also expanding, especially at private institutions. “It is important to develop programmes in compliance with the Emerging Gabon strategy which stresses the need to improve governance at all levels,” Konde Sekouba, the general director at the Franco-American Management Academy (Académie Franco-Américaine de Management, AFRAM), told OBG. “Nevertheless, it is also important to remain receptive to foreign knowledge and expertise.” To this end, AFRAM has partnered with a number of foreign institutions to develop advanced degree offerings at home such as French University of Paul Valerie Montpellier 3, the Institut Universitaire de Technologie of Amiens and a University Diploma with the University of Montpellier 1. Students on these programmes earn a French degree at the end of the course.

More degree offerings are expected in the coming years as the government plans to establish a free-zone project to create a “green city of education and knowledge”. The project will cost CFA30bn (€45m) and will establish a range of renowned institutions from primary to tertiary schools under public-private partnerships (PPPs), offering investors a number of fiscal and tax incentives to build infrastructure and provide equipment. The free-zone project will also offer private investors the opportunity to establish facilities such as libraries, campuses, and student and teacher housing.

DEVELOPING PARTNERSHIPS: Although Gabon has embarked on a strategy to diversify domestic educational offerings, the country continues to send a number of students abroad to pursue higher education. As a result, local and international universities have partnered. For example, the UOB signed an agreement with the Spanish University of Pablo de Olavide allowing students to pursue advanced degrees in African and Latin American studies. Agreements for specialised degrees made as part of the Emerging Gabon strategy have also been signed with the University of Oregon in the US for environmental studies, administration and biology, and with the Swiss institute of Canton de Berne specialising in the wood industry. Many Gabonese students also attend the African Institute of Management in Dakar, Senegal for master’s degree programmes.

MATCHING SKILLS: Unemployment is high, with one-third of Gabonese under 30 are unemployed. Therefore, the government has committed to expanding technical education and professional training with the aim of having 20% of students enrolled in these programmes by 2020. Estimates from the African Development Bank suggest just 8% of students are currently enrolled in vocational programmes. Developing vocational programmes should help absorb a number of the 10,000 to 15,000 young people entering the labour market each year (see analysis).

To align courses with the needs of growth industries and offer more advanced degrees, a number of professional schools were turned into technical schools in 2010, bringing the number of these institutions to 11.

Despite the shift towards technical training, a number of centres for professional training remain. “These centres play an important role in absorbing people who are no longer in the education system by providing them with a second opportunity to acquire a qualification,” said Emile Ibamba, a former advisor at the Ministry of Technical Education and Professional Training. There are two centres for professional training in Libreville and one in each Port-Gentil, Franceville, Makokou, koulamoutou, Oyem and Tchibanga. Another two more centres are planned for Mouila and Lambaréné.

ICT: Integrating information and communication technology (ICT) into education is a key goal. The government and international organisations have committed CFA1.5bn (€2.25m) annually over the next 10 years to buy computers. The local Agency for Consolidation of Technology Education has been active in promoting the use of technology in education since its launch in 2005. It has established spaces dedicated to ICT learning in schools (known as centres of excellence), provides students and teachers with ICT training, and develops educational software. However, the cost of equipment and internet access continue to pose challenges.

OUTLOOK: In recent years Gabon has made substantial progress in reducing illiteracy and increasing enrolment rates. However, further progress is needed if the country is to meet its goals by 2020. Government funding of education remains considerably low compared to other African nations. Efforts to diversify degree offerings in higher, technical and vocational education are expected to alleviate some of the financial burden incurred by the high cost of sending students abroad and produce graduates with marketable skills in the future. The government’s central mechanism for data collection and analysis should allow a better assessment of the sector’s performance once results are out, which will lay the groundwork for future policy developments to improve the quality of education.