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Funding USL: Prospects and Challenges

1 April 2014 at 09:03 | 1027 views

Essay

By Dr. Peter A. Dumbuya, Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Introduction

Founded in 1827 by the Church Missionary Society (CMS) with a curriculum geared toward educating and training missionaries for work in Sierra Leone and West Africa generally, Fourah Bay College (FBC) is one of the oldest universities not only in sub-Saharan Africa but in the world. It is older than most U.S. universities west of the Mississippi River. Its affiliation with Durham University was legendary. It survived many near-death experiences in the 19th and 20th
centuries. The rigor of its academic programs, competence of its graduates, and wide reach of its student population earned it unquestioned recognition as the “Athens of West Africa.”

But as most people will tell you, FBC has (again!?) fallen on hard times. Its physical facilities (class rooms, offices, staff quarters, library, male/female hostels, roads, water systems, electricity, etc.) are in a state of disrepair. As I understand it from many different sources, classroom instruction is spotty, morale is very low, and money (or the lack of it) seems to be one of the root causes of these ailments.

Challenges: Government Funding of the USL

And so it came as no surprise to me the other day (Tuesday March 18) when I read in the local newspapers that the University of Sierra Leone which includes
FBC, College of Medicine and Allied Health Sciences, and the Institute of Public
Administration and Management is going to host the first ever conference on funding. Why did it take so long for the authorities to summon this conference, given the dilapidated state of University facilities and the lack of financial wherewithal to address a multitude of problems? Why did it take so long for the government to tell the folks at FBC and other public educational institutions that it alone cannot fund education a hundred percent of the time, given the many other competing priorities in the nation? When the Minister of Education, Science, and Technology (Dr. Minkailu Bah), and Minister of Finance and Economic Development (Dr. Kaifala Marah) spoke at the conference, immediately I surmised what was coming to the USL. The intersection of education and money, in this case the lack of it, had become a toxic mixture, and something had to be done about it. When the Minister of Finance stood at the podium and said he was “speaking from the heart,” I knew he was going to stick the University with pins and needles; the pins and needles came slowly but surely.

The sub-title of the conference, “Prospects and Challenges in a Dynamic Economy and Global Environment,” gently reminded the University that it can no longer rest on past glory, do business as usual, narrowly focus its curriculum in a few key disciplines, and depend on government for handouts. Instead, the government announced, through Dr. Marah, a bifurcated plan to wean the University and other educational institutions from the government budget while repositioning them to be administered with a business model that diversifies their funding sources and improves their efficiency and relevance to the goals enunciated in the Agenda for Prosperity (AFP). The AFP’s goal is to transform Sierra Leone into a middle income country by 2035. However, Sierra Leone cannot realize this target without substantial domestic reforms that will give its economy a competitive edge on the global market. On a recent visit to Sierra Leone, the UN Secretary-General, Mr. Ban Ki-Moon, suggested that the target date should be brought forward to 2030, but whether this is doable or not remains to be seen. The Secretary-General of the Mano River Union (MRU) (Dr. Hadja S.D. Kabba) also spoke of the need to align the mission of the USL to the country’s development goals.

The stakes are high indeed. In making the case for a new funding paradigm, the Minister of Education laid out the government’s annual subventions/grants-in-aid to the USL:

Year Amount in Le (Billions)

2007-27.5

2008-29.0

2009-37.7

2010-43.8

2011-49.3

2012-105.0

2013-125.0

These annual subventions, the Minister of Education told the audience, are not
sustainable, given budget constraints and competing developmental priorities (roads, electricity, water, defense, health, etc.) Instead, he announced government’s intention to phase out subventions and replace them with fee subsidies, which in turn will be replaced by a student loan scheme in three years. This means that in the future, students will have to secure government- backed loans to pay for their university education. These new rules of engagement, the ministers hastened to add, will require public-private partnerships so that the USL and similarly situated tertiary educational institutions can achieve what the World Bank country representative emphasized in his presentation, namely academic excellence, financial stability, and autonomy.

Prospects: Searching for a New Funding Paradigm

According to Section 32 of The Universities Act, 2005, “The funds of each University shall be derived from (a) moneys appropriated by law for the purposes of the University; (b) income earned by the University; (c) tuition fees, and (d) grants or gifts from any person or authority.”

Section 33 also states that “A University may seek and procure contributions to its funds and may lawfully raise moneys from any source as it may deem expedient.” Since this law has been on the books since 2005, one wonders why the USL has not availed itself of the opportunity to search for other sources of funding until now.

So, how does the USL overcome the many challenges the two ministers had laid out so starkly in their respective presentations? The conference organizers solicited ideas and practical solutions from attendees by organizing them into a number of breakout sessions. I attended the session that dealt with the presentations by Drs. Marah and Bah. We discussed various proposals not only to raise funds for the USL but also to increase student enrolment with its concomitant increase in revenues for the institutions. These included evening/weekend college especially for non-traditional students/students who are gainfully employed, business ventures (alumni associations, think tanks, consultancies, printing press, etc.), creation of an office to protect intellectual property, marketing the USL at home and abroad, better management of USL
property, community outreach, and continuing education programs to complement the USL’s regular courses. Session leaders presented these and other proposals to the conference for adoption and referral to the appropriate University authorities for final action.

In addition to what the conference garnered from participants, FBC can take a step further on the road to becoming a fully funded research university. As I mentioned above, FBC was sub-Saharan Africa’s first institution of higher education. Yet nearly two centuries later, the country’s premier institution of higher education does not have comprehensive graduate (masters and doctoral) programs to educate current and future students in the subjects, disciplines, and professions that are crucial for economic growth and overall national development.

A research university is defined as an educational institution that offers a wide range of masters, doctoral, and professional degree and/or certificate programs. This classification is also based upon the number of graduate fields represented by the degrees and/or certificates awarded by the university. The transformation of FBC into a research institution will provide for the study of cutting-edge subjects and research opportunities that will lead to breakthroughs
in the sciences, humanities, medicine, nursing, economics, business management, and hospitality management. FBC’s future as an institution of higher education and research in Sierra Leone depends to a large extent upon the authorities’ ability and willingness to transform it into a research institution. The USL and its officials should look into this matter and make recommendations to the government for FBC to be transformed into a research institution in the not too distant future.

In Freetown, there are countless numbers of young men and women who are out of school or college because they cannot not afford to pay high tuition and education expenses per annum. There are many more students scattered throughout the country whose stories are similar to the ones I have heard in Freetown and the surrounding towns and villages. Sierra Leone cannot and should not allow these students to fall by the wayside because of financial hardship.

Therefore, consideration should be given to the implementation of a flexible payment plan on an academic semester or term basis instead of per annum. Students who do not fulfill their financial obligations by the deadline are then removed from the class rolls. This “flex system” will ease the financial burden on students, parents, guardians, and other sponsors. This system is in place in many university systems in the United States, for example, and it has led to increased enrollment of students with a concomitant increase in revenues, research grants, donations, and endowments. In some instances, provision can be made for student loans to be offset by work in remote areas of Sierra Leone where teachers, doctors, and health care workers are badly needed. A “flex system” and a student loan program can go a long way toward providing young Sierra Leoneans with a decent education that will prepare them for the jobs of the future.

Conclusion

As the 2007 Human Development Report (HDR) emphasized, “Education is a major contributor to human development. It has both an intrinsic value (the benefits of being educated) and an extrinsic value (the potentials that exist for an educated person).” The Report also underscored the fact that “Education helps to empower the population, especially the poor, to enhance their income-earning potential, and to improve the quality of their lives.” With about 15 million unskilled youths in the MRU (according to Dr. Kabba), the USL and other educational institutions (tertiary and below) have their work cut out for them.

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