A drive to diversify Gabon’s economy away from commodity dependency has made education a key element of the broader plans for growth. The government has adopted a development strategy based on the results of the 2010 National Education Conference, which highlighted pertinent weaknesses in the public education system. The state is primarily working to increase the number of schools, train and recruit more teachers, and produce reliable statistics on student performance by 2020.

Efforts to introduce more advanced and technical degree programmes will better equip young people to meet the demands of the shifting domestic job market. Progress will be gradual, and the private school system will continue to play a critical role in the long term. However, Gabon has put the necessary plans in place to better educate its youth and keep more qualified graduates in the country, in line with the national economic development plan.

DEVELOPMENT PLANS: Law 21 of 2011 prepares the ground for the development of public education via infrastructure investment, priority fields of study and an overhaul of the scholarship system. Investment in the sector has been tentative since 2010. Now that the recommendations have been translated into law, government investment may pick up.

Gabon significantly increased its investment budget in 2013 as part of its plan to overhaul public infrastructure across the board. Investment in education proposed in the budget was up 53% year-on-year to €138m. The state has indicated that an additional €684m in education spending is planned over the next five years, including a budget to equip schools with computers and other IT material.

Article 12 of the new law provides for the creation of a National Council on Education, Training and Research, which will be the foremost authority on education. The public scholarship office was turned into an independent National Scholarships Agency (Agence Nationale des Bourses du Gabon, ANBG) in 2012, with a higher budget and a new orientation toward environment, services and industry.

INFRASTRUCTURE: Work has begun to expand school infrastructure, a pillar of the education strategy. The first phase of refurbishment was launched in 2011, concentrating on secondary and higher education institutions. Renovation and expansion is under way at three teachers’ colleges, as well as Libreville University of Health Sciences and the University of Science and Technology in Franceville.

Additional expansion efforts were launched in 2012 at three of the largest public high schools in Libreville and 17 provincial high schools. For example, Lycée National Léon Mba in Libreville received a number of prefabricated classrooms in 2012 that will ease the strain on class sizes in the short-term. In the second phase of the project, expected to be launched in 2013, the government will focus on the refurbishment of primary schools in the capital.

PRIMARY SCHOOLS: Gabon’s public education system is based on the principle of free, universal access, and attendance is mandatory between the ages of six and 16 years old. Enrolment at the primary level is near-universal, but repetition and dropout rates remain an issue at all levels of public education.

Primary school begins at age six and lasts five years. According to UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) figures, there were 317,946 students in primary education in 2011. Gabon’s primary school enrolment rate is among the highest in sub-Saharan Africa, increasing from 90% in 2003 to 94.7% in 2010. As such, Gabon is well within reach of its 2015 Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education.

The proportion of primary students attending private schools rose from 29% in 2003 to 44% in 2011. There is a high dropout and repetition rate, even in primary school; an estimated 34% of primary school students repeated a grade in 2003. Teaching staff in primary schools, both public and private, rose from 7764 in 2003 to almost 13,000 in 2011. The government hopes to recruit several thousand new primary teachers by 2020 to improve the quality of instruction and student support.

Efforts to refurbish and expand primary school infrastructure in the capital should improve teaching conditions and reduce class sizes in the future. Yet infrastructural challenges remain, particularly in more isolated areas. Small rural schools are more limited in their facilities, and UNESCO estimates that only half of public primary schools had electricity in 2011.

SECONDARY SCHOOLS: Secondary school begins at age 11 and lasts for seven years; the first four are spent in lower-secondary, or collège, and the last three in upper-secondary, or lycée.

In the past, students had to pass a competitive national exam to enter secondary school, but this has proved an obstacle for the system and is expected to be eliminated in the 2013-14 school year.

Around 146,000 students were enrolled in secondary school in 2011, half the number that were in primary school. The public-private split was similar for secondary education, with roughly 45% of secondary students enrolled in private schools in 2011.

At the end of lycée, students take the Baccalaureate exam, a general test necessary to enter most universities. The national success rate jumped to 50.5% in 2011 according to local media reports, well above the 30-40% success rates seen in the last decade. The state hopes to reach 80% by 2020.

According to UNESCO, the average class size in public primary school was 25 students per teacher in 2011; in secondary school, however, class sizes can climb as high as 60 students in larger public schools. The goal is to bring class sizes down to a maximum of 35 students, as is the norm in many private schools. There were an estimated 5062 secondary school teachers in 2011, public and private combined.

STUDENT INFLUX: The elimination of the secondary school entrance exam will allow a greater number of students to continue their studies, but it will also result in an influx of collège students into an already crowded public system. “When this change comes into effect in 2013-14, we anticipate a sharp increase in the number of students nationwide, which will place extra strain on public education,” said Jean Baptiste Obori, the headmaster of Lycée National Léon Mba. “The introduction of a different selection system based on grades may be a more effective way of rationalising student advancement.”

The state is preparing for this expected influx by introducing temporary classrooms in the near-term, and construction projects planned under Law 21 of 2011 should help accommodate a larger number of students in the future.

While most students are enrolled in public schools, private school enrolment is on the rise. Private schools play a critical role by offering higher-quality instruction, smaller class sizes and higher performance rates, but at a cost. UNESCO figures from 2005, the most recent year available, indicate that households contribute over one-third of total spending on education. However, private school fees put this option out of the reach of many households.

PERFORMANCE STATISTICS: Literacy rates are also strong. Among adults over 15 years old, literacy grew from 84% in 2004 to 89% in 2009. This breaks down to 79.3% among adult females in 2011 and 92.3% among adult males. Gender parity is higher among the young, however, showing the positive impact of primary enrolment rates. Literacy among those aged 15-24 years climbed to 97.9% in 2011, broken down to 97% for females and 98.8% for males.

In general, the absence of up-to-date and reliable statistics has been an obstacle for the education system. Agence Française de Développement financed a system-wide study from 2009 to 2012 to assess resource allocation, student numbers and infrastructure and to inform decision-making at the ministerial level. The Rapport d’État sur le Système Éducatif National study was completed in May 2012 and confirmed that there is a gap between resources and demand. Insufficient school capacity is an important concern in urban areas, and the geographic distribution of schools does not always match that of the population. For example, while there are 482 schools in the Ogooué Maritime province, there are just 109 in the northern Woleu-Ntem province.

The report also highlights a financing gap in education. The state proposed a bold investment goal of €2.7bn under its 2010-20 development strategy, but it has not confirmed what percentage will come from public investment; it is estimated that over 50% may need to come from the private sector, and bilateral and multilateral partners.

Improved data gathering will be necessary to effectively channel investment into priority areas. The government also established a General Directorate for Statistics within the Ministry of Education, which will centralise and update system statistics. The first data collection was completed in 2012, and this should help to improve decision-making tools.

Furthermore, the National Agency for Digital Infrastructure and Frequencies (Agence Nationale des Infrastructures Numériques et des Fréquences, ANINF) is working with the relevant ministries to introduce student identification numbers, which will facilitate more effective monitoring of student performance. This should give authorities a better picture of student makeup, the number of repetitions and dropouts, and their level. Monitoring progress will also ensure that students are qualified to sit standardised exams or advance to the next grade. The project will require time and the assistance of private partners to put in place, but should ultimately bring more rigour to the public education system.

HIGHER EDUCATION: Gabon’s tertiary education system is also dominated by the public sector. The largest public university is Université Omar Bongo (UOB) in Libreville. Two other public universities, the Masuku University of Science and Technology in Franceville and the University of Health Sciences, which spun off from UOB in 2002, fill out the public sector. Three more public universities are slated for construction in Oyem, Mouila and Port-Gentil, which will specialise in key sectors such as natural resource management and the environment, tourism, and business management.

The state has prioritised efforts to boost the number of advanced degree programmes so as to keep more highly trained professionals in the country. The Ministry of Education is working to spread complete Bachelor’s-Master’s-Doctorate (Licence-Master-Doctorat) programmes at national universities. UOB began by offering master’s programmes in 10 departments in the 2010/11 academic year, including economics, law, history, communications and modern literature. The system is expected to spread further in 2012/13, and doctoral programmes are expected to begin in the next few years.

The multiplication of advanced degree programmes brings demand for qualified professors and other academic personnel. UOB held a conference on public-private partnerships (PPPs) in 2012 hoping to stoke interest in collaborative projects, and announced that it plans to offer professional master’s degrees in partnership with local firms beginning in 2013-14 at the earliest, allowing UOB to expand its offerings in finance, international business, tourism and foreign language studies, among others.

The private sector already plays a critical role in providing specialised degree programmes. A number of business schools have emerged in recent years, including the Franco-American Management Academy, which offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in administrative affairs and business management, and BGFI Business School, which offers master’s degrees and professional training in financial services. Many private schools offer such programmes in partnership with universities in Europe or North America, bringing a new perspective and resources to the effort to train the next generation of Gabonese professionals.

A network of specialised public schools known as grandes écoles bridges the gap between general universities and professional schools. They provide advanced training in a specific field or profession, on a smaller scale than the main public universities. The Ecole Nationale d’Administration, for example, trains top-level bureaucrats through bachelor’s and master’s programmes. Other schools include the National Teachers’ College, Masuku Polytechnic School, the National Institute of Management Sciences and the National School of Forestry and Water.

While these specialised schools produce highly trained professionals, the class sizes are too small to fully meet the demands of the labour market. As Gabon’s economy develops, it has a strong need for professionals in industries such as petroleum, mining, business creation and management, tourism, communication technology, health and education.

SCHOLARSHIPS: The government is working to encourage students into priority industries through an overhaul of its public scholarship system. The state spends an estimated €60m per year on student scholarships and grants; in many cases, these funds went towards programmes that do not correspond with national economic priorities or send large numbers of qualified students abroad.

New agency the ANBG now offers scholarships in line with the three pillars of the economic development strategy: services, environment, and industry. Over 13,000 students received a scholarship in the 2011/12 school year, and the ANBG estimates that this number rose to close to 16,000 in 2012/13.

The state will continue to fund foreign studies, particularly for advanced degree programmes not currently available in Gabon. The country has educational partnerships from the US to Europe, Turkey, China and Singapore, which provide a critical outlet for students wishing to pursue their studies outside of Gabon’s limited higher education system.

PROFESSIONAL TRAINING: Many countries in the region face issues of unemployment, and a joint effort announced at the June 2013 New York Forum for Africa should provide more outlets into technical and vocational programmes in the future.

President Bongo announced the creation of a €155m fund for the CEMAC region in association with the New York Forum Institute. The fund, “Train My Generation,” will finance the creation of 50 professional schools throughout the region that aim to train 100,000 additional students in the high-potential fields of tourism, agriculture and retail. The fund will be supported by a €40m contribution from CEMAC governments, and the remainder is slated to come from the private sector.

WORKING TOGETHER: In Gabon, plans for several new industry-specific schools have been announced in recent years, often in partnership with companies that are looking to increase the number of qualified professionals on the domestic market.

Several schools are expected to straddle the line between grande écoles and technical schools, offering a variety of programmes from one-year technical certificates to two-year engineering and advanced technician degrees. Owendo Technical Institute was announced in 2012, and is expected to focus on wood processing technologies. Work has also begun on a School of Mines and Metallurgy in Moanda, a key manganese mining area in the interior. The school is set for completion in 2015 and will offer technician training, as well as professional bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Mining firm Comilog-Eramet is a partner in the project, and support will come from a consortium of French universities, including Paris School of Mines. In addition, the Oil and Gas Institute (Institut du Pétrole et du Gaz, IPG) was inaugurated in 2010 in Port-Gentil. The IPG was created from a PPP with several oil companies active in Gabon, including Total, Shell, Addax Petroleum, Eni and Perenco. The school will train petroleum technicians and engineers when it fully opens in 2013.

At the next level, Gabon has a network of seven Centres for Professional Training and Excellence (Centres Sectoriels de Formation Professionnelle et de Perfectionnement, CFPP) and 11 technical high schools. The CFPPs offer short-term training to prepare students for employment in forestry, construction and public works. Technical high schools allow students to prepare for a Professional Baccalaureate or Brevet de Technicien Supérieur, which can open the door to advanced technical positions.

The African Development Bank estimates that 8% of Gabonese students are currently enrolled in technical and professional programmes, but the state aims to push this 20% of all students by 2020, in order to meet the demands of its growing economy.

GOING DIGITAL: Gabon is also working to boost the use of information and communications technology (ICT). An E-education project, led by ANINF, aims to build and equip 50 digital classrooms nationwide and train 600 instructors to teach ICT courses. The integration of computers will help improve the quality of education and train the next generation of tech-savvy professionals. The project is currently at the pilot stage, but ANINF hopes to increase the number of digital classrooms to several hundred in the long-term. The first was inaugurated in the Complexe Basile Ondimba in Libreville in 2012.

OUTLOOK: Gabon is working to overcome a shortage of qualified instructors at all levels of the public education system; in the short-term, teachers recruited abroad help to fill this gap.

Obori told OBG, “We need to make teaching more attractive by improving conditions in public schools and ensuring the timely insertion of new teachers into the job market. The government is making moves in this direction, with efforts to build new classrooms, reduce class sizes and boost teacher training, but this will be a long-term effort.”

The state estimates that it will need to add 17,000 new teachers at all levels by 2020 to reach the goals set. Recruiting teachers for technical and professional schools is a necessity, as the new scholarship structure may help channel students into priority fields. More and more specialised schools are opening with private support, but the country will need to expand these programmes quickly to meet the demands of Gabon’s growing economy. Given this shortage, there is a key role to be played by private schools and foreign partners in raising the level of the educational offering at all levels of the system.