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Universities: Gimme Quality over Quantity

8 February 2019 at 16:09 | 1822 views


Universities: Gimme Quality over Quantity

By Fayia Sellu, USA

I heard the other day the Chief Minister, Dr. Francis, being quoted as saying the Milton Margai College of Education will be upgraded to a university. Oh wait, was it not the Eastern Polytechnic? Oh, I thought the President just promised Kono a university. No? Exactly.

The last time I remember such talk passing for would-be political policy was during the Presidential debate, when Chief Sam Sumana promised that he would put one factory in every district. I was quizzical about the efficacious basis of such policy, but as the issue flooded my critical mind, I quickly pinched myself to wake up from the Lala Land of Castles in the Air which politicians usually build on campaign trails.. Or must one worry that such ideas could actually see the light of day, if such politician becomes elected? More substantive questions as to what really drives policy with regard to research, critical realities and optimal use of state resources, were beginning to exercise my mind. Phew! Is it just me, or does it feel like Sierra Leone is in a new normal mode of never ending elections season?! My bad. Forgive my fly-fishing, but are people in the knowledge industry (Think Tank equivalence) thinking through these ideas thoroughly for the optimal use of state resources and best output of human resource development?

Outright: Universities are not cheap. They are not candy that one can go around dishing out as goodwill gesture. They are a capital-intensive, long-term, constantly in need of maintenance, and elastic investments. In the United States, California, where I live and school, universities are so huge an investment, they are funded by a mix of state, federal government and, substantially, by the private sector. The nature of university education as investment is made so ingrained, that along with home mortgages, student loan is the largest source of lasting individual debt. With Pell and countless other grants, both federal and state, and subsidies, there is done a decent job of making college affordable for especially low income students. So far, I have avoided the words “flagship,” “education” or “free” deliberately, because they have nothing to do with universities and who puts them up where. Rightly, Basic Education (primary and secondary) which forms the basis of the Free Quality Education, is an imperative in the drive for human capital investment and capacitating the citizenry for the challenges in a world increasingly pivoting into a digital economy. Formidable literacy, concept comprehension and minimum competency in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) are expected to have been afforded students graduating from the “basic” system, so as to prepare them navigate career areas of choice in the tertiary leg of their educational journey. In the global North and South, governments must and do deem it upon themselves incumbent to make the necessary investment for their citizens to be competitive in the skilled, professional and entrepreneurial markets. The Bio government has obliged above necessity in spades, allocating 21 percent of the nation’s budget to tackle the herculean challenges of cost, access and quality, intrinsic to their delivery. Simply put: the Free Quality Education is an ambitious and expensive undertaking by the government. Therefore, considering all the funds needed for adequacy, let alone “quality” (expanding the infrastructure, better teacher emoluments, providing school materials and other cost runs), prioritization of resources is vitally important.

Enter the universities and government’s subventionary role in running them. Unlike other places like the United States, the Sierra Leone government is the Chief Benefactor and investor in tertiary education, period. We just don’t have private sector or billionaires pouring grant money into theirs or other foundations of interest. On the two different University of California campuses I have attended, there always are new buildings, infrastructure going up, and renovation being done, even along with loud talk about dwindling state funding for higher education. In Salone, if the Chinese are out there renovating the vastly inadequate student hostels at Fourah Bay College, it is at the expense of a hospital or feeder road that was not prioritized in that intervention package.If the European Union partner with Salone Government to build a new University in Kailahun, it is with funds that will not be used for state-of-the-art internet-equipped computer labs for research at Fourah Bay or Njala universities. get the point. Resources are scarce, and government as it is, is always negotiating or just plain haggling with faculty and academic staff about pay raises, emoluments, most times leading to shut downs. We brag that our premier university, Fourah Bay College (FBC), was founded in 1827 and that we were named the Athens of West Africa and all, but look at the state of infrastructure in our universities today. There is no institution of higher learning, zero, that one can do a simple thing as fill an electronic application for admission to. The universities authorities are not profiling themselves and their institutions well enough as domains for research and innovation that can attract government and private funding, or pay well enough to attract and retain the calibre of faculty to engage in such cutting-edge research. We don’t have to always fly in expatriate brains if there are locals who can address their work to solving local problems.

Precisely. Universities should not be viewed as burdens on government or a bottomless pit to throw away public funds. The critical thinking and problem solving aspects of education have to be enunciated, positively. Plurality, affordability and access will always be issues to contend with. However, knowledge itself, at its fulcrum, should be viewed as a vehicle for positive change and the betterment of the human condition. Accordingly, we should, as is done in the West, fashion knowledge as a tool, not an end in itself, to engineer change and move the boundaries of possibility in the human kind. The object here is not to churn out graduates annually with certificates that don’t necessarily provide the skills needed aplenty in the actual universe. We do not have to all agree that even in the West, there is a multiplicity of especially private for-profit universities with the conveyor belt kind of mentality to education. They have their place in the current global capitalist, neoliberal, formulation. There is always going to be need for people who have only generic or basic skills, or knowledge, and provide the workforce for the “Big Thinkers.” Equipped with the ‘hardware’ of a quality, critical-thinking and problem-solving based education at Ivy League schools like Harvard, these “Big thinkers” like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, can afford to drop out as undergraduates and literally change the world. Quality matters. Before coming to the quality academic environs that universities like Harvard provide for our (post) modern tech gods like Gates or Zuckerberg, (who do not need a certificates of completion to excel in life) they had excellent basic education up to High school level. A kid born in Kamalo or Tihun may suffer from all the depredation of oppressive poverty wrought by post-colonial bad governance, and be modernity-challenged, unlike their Seattle or White Plains, New York counterparts today. In the dialectic of global North and South, said kid may inhabit the ‘being’ philosopher Frantz Fanon long ago captured as “The Wretched of the Earth.” There is no way of knowing what potentiality resides in that ‘being,’ if we don’t crack open the door of opportunity for them, starting with Quality Basic Education.

I was born and raised on the Mokonde campus of Njala University. Then it was Njala University College (NUC), a constituent college of the University of Sierra Leone. If I have a redo, I would not want that fact of fate to change one bit. The reasons are endless and are a whole book’s worth. Let me state some utterly relevant to the current piece. Unlike many of my compatriots, I cannot say I was not born into modernity, however unkempt, as it bestrode a jangly neighbourly poverty in the villages outlying Njala or in the living quarters of the very junior of staff. I attended the university’s International School with British, American, Indian, Lebanese, and yes, the relatively poor kids from the southern parts of the staff register and quarters. Nobody seemed to care. I am not going to mention ethno-regional differences because I noticed none. There is the saying that even the teeth and tongue would sometimes clash, but by and large, it was mighty peaceful. That community was abundantly diverse. Among its staff and students, every cranny of the country was fully represented. As well, its peopling included those from abroad (the expatriates, foreign students from Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Gambia and so on and so forth). Like almost everybody known to me growing up, I found family there—the Mokonde Family. Both my parents hail from Kailahun. There is much to be learned about cohesion from the bonds shared by people who lived at NUC at the time. No matter where they are in the world today, most seem to excel. One should expect nothing less from a community that offers a (not a section) whole library for children. NUC was set up with a bias for agriculture and it did not hurt to grow up in an agronomic environment where, year round, one, two or more crops will reach peak harvest season and proliferate the community. On that note, added to NUC’s own work, there was the United States Assistance for International Development (USAID) funded the Adaptive Crop Research and Extension (ACRE) project that later became Institute of Agricultural Research (IAR) annexed to the campus. Also, there was the British Aid funded Certificate Training Center (CTC) which trained agricultural extension and development workers. Together, these two provided infrastructural boost for the college with their ultra-modern facilities; living quarters, offices, laboratories, fleets (Ford Broncos, Jeeps, farm equipment, etc.) and diverse competencies of staff, local and international. Just an example of potentialities of university research as profusely exhibited in the West, Njala had among other things crossbred its own exclusive strains of potatoes like the Njala White, Gbanie Special and ‘Rowport.’ It was quite an event, the annual agricultural show on NUC campus, to behold upon agronomic excellence. I would not wager my pretty penny that I cannot walk into a grocery store in America and buy potatoes (they call it yam) that were probably crossbred in Sierra Leone. Yet, look at the hundreds of million in precious forex we spend on importing foodstuff.

It matters not if President Bio relinquishes the traditional Chancellor of the University (There is more than one university now, and all those convocations, it is going to be a handful) post(s) in a bid to ensure they have more independence, the unavoidable fact is, the Principal Player role in the affairs of universities, from appointing their heads to key funding, will always be the preserve of government. They are public institutions! It is government which negotiates with key bilateral and multilateral partners with its priorities as to where to invest/inject funds from loans or grants-in-aid, mostly. Policy formulation with a firm grasp of the long term impact and implications are rudimentary and should be mandatory. When I heard about the splitting of Njala University from the hitherto University of Sierra Leone arrangement, it crossed my mind that it was the right thing to do, fitting perfectly into the narrative that Njala is more inclined to agriculture and the sciences, as Fourah Bay College is to the liberal arts. The idea, one thought, was streamlining and sharpening of focus. I was wrong. It was a start of what now shapes up clearly now as the balkanization of university education, where the focus is not to build, equip diversify and strengthen, but mere vainglory, duplicity and multiplicity of institutions. At the time when Fourah Bay College (FBC) student hostels have been shut down for nine years; when their academic staff and those of Njala University were engaging in frequent strike actions as if they were going for lunch breaks, for months at a time; when everyone is complaining about the about falling standards at these leading institutions, there was instituted the Ernest Bai Koroma University, with campuses in Makeni, Magburaka and Port Loko. One would think that if the object was to advance education in these areas, a good starting point would have been salvaging schools like Magburaka Boys High School from its decrepit state. It is not a mission (Christian or Muslim) school, so government needed to do the renovation.There is a whole generation of students who’ll never know what it feels like to be a student on campus like ex-president Koroma did at FBC in the 70s. They are never going to have the chance to experience all the rites of passage...even the opportunity to sometimes serve as the political conscience of a nation when the traditional politicians fail, like they did against Siaka Steven in 1977, Momoh for multiparty democracy in 1990/91 and the AFRC military junta August 18, 1997. Americans criss-cross their huge country in search of jobs, but especially to attend universities of their choice and/or opportunity. Diversity in higher education is promoted relentlessly despite the pushback it gets. That’s because they know it enhances the whole experience of knowledge acquisition and betters the country. Zuckerberg thought up Facebook in a dormitory room, a chance many at FBC, who treat that institution as a drive-thru for paper qualification, never got to know. It is with all of the above in mind that one admonishes President Bio be careful as not to further balkanize the configuration of tertiary institutions. The president must exercise caution and start with strengthening the base of his flagship program—the basic education level. There should be a shoring up of existing universities, before embarking on building new institutions giving how constrained the country is for resources.

We look forward to a commonsensical approach to dealing with, maintaining and expanding universities, rather than recycling the rubbish heap of decadent and bankrupt policies of failed politicians. Policies that may make for instant gratification politics, not long term benefit maximization for the citizenry, sense.