Sierra Leone needs to urgently upgrade and expand its technical and vocational education – says Dr Yumkella 

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 7 August 2017

The debate about Sierra Leone’s ability to compete among other economies in the sub-region has begun. And it was ignited by a seemingly innocuous statement, made by one of the country’s main contenders for the 2018 presidency – Dr Kandeh Yumkella.

Speaking last week on VOA radio, he questioned the job market relevance of some of the higher education courses offered to students in Sierra Leone.

But his comments did not go down well with some students, especially those either studying towards or qualified with a peace studies degree, which Yumkella cited as an example of how the country is failing to take a strategic look at its current and future labour market skills needs – if it is to improve its productivity and regional competitiveness.

Responding to the barrage of criticisms that were levied at him, Yumkella took to the podium at an event marking the inauguration of the council of heads of technical & vocational institutions in Sierra Leone, held at the British Council Hall in Freetown, last Thursday, 3rd August, 2017.

So what was his reason for questioning the relevance of certain courses – such as peace studies, to the country’s economic competitiveness?

Speaking at the British Council last Thursday, Yumkella said that his statement was made “within (the) context of a general curriculum review and alignment initiative that we made our comments in the VOA interview referred to above.  In fact, our intention was not to belittle Peace and Conflict Majors, but rather to  defend  the  rights  of  graduating  students  and  youth  to  secure “decent  and productive jobs” as called for under Goal 8 of the Sustainable Development Goals.

This was his keynote speech:

Let  me  express  my  deep  gratitude  to  the  Council  of  Heads  of  Technical  and Vocational  Institutions  for  inviting  me  to  this  important  and  historic  event.  I therefore want to take this opportunity to commend the Heads of Technical and Vocational (TECVOC) institutions for reaching a consensus on the establishment of a modern professional organisation such as yours that will promote higher standards, efficiency and quality learning across institutions.

I believe that we should all have a sense of urgency to call for radical reform and overhaul of our educational system from schools to tertiary levels since they all form part of an integrated educational value-chain.

Relevance and Critical Importance of Technical & Vocational Institutions

Let me state at the outset that given our changing demographics, especially the youth  bulge,  this  nation  urgently  needs  to  invest  massively  in  upgrading  and expanding TECVOC and other tertiary education institutions. The role of TECVOC in our nation’s economic growth and transformation is critical for several reasons.

First, in  two decade our country , like most other in African , will have to take radical steps to manage an unprecedented youth bulge and demographic transition that could  result in a huge demand for higher education.

Our recent National Census shows that 42% of the population is below age 18 and 60% is below the age of 25. This suggests a growing demand for schools and tertiary institutions over the next two decades.

For example, within two decades alone, the student population in public higher tertiary education institutions grew from 8,913 in 2001 to 31,103 in 20012 thus representing  a 257% increase.

Moreover, a World Bank demographic simulation for Sierra Leone in 2013 projected that demand for Junior Secondary and Senior Secondary Schools will increase by 128% and 140%, respectively, and that should the annual growth rate for Public Higher Education stay at 11% per year (as it did from 2005 to 2013), then enrolment in Tertiary Education would double by 2018 and quadruple by 2025

The authors of the report warn that this is not sustainable and calls for a major expansion of Private Tertiary Education services. It is in this context that we want to commend you the proprietors, principals and Faculty of Technical and Vocational institutions for investing time and money to meet part of this massive demand for learning and skills training.

Without you the nation’s publicly funded higher education system would simply collapse under such demographic pressure. The number of Private Tertiary Institutions registered with the Tertiary Education Commission, grew from zero in 2004 to 24 in 2011.

But, the current infrastructure available  in  all  your  campuses  combined  will  not  meet  future demands.

Second, in 2014 Sierra Leone completed its first Specialised Labor Force Survey in three decades. The results of the Survey which covered 4,200 households and over 20,000 individuals was published in 2016. One key finding from that survey is that TECVOC institutions have provided training in critical fields for youth who had completed secondary school  to  help  them  transition  to  gainful  employment.

Enrolment  across  vocational  areas  was  even  for  people  who  had  completed secondary school as follows:

  • Business Services including computer and internet services-22%, Construction and manufacturing including Electricians, Plumbing, Carpentry, Masonry, Blacksmithing or Gara Tie-Dying-19%.
  • Teaching-19%, Personal Services including Automotive and Motorcycle Mechanics, Tailoring, Hair dressing and Catering-17%.
  • Nursing-14%.
  • Agriculture -2% (although this sector accounts for more  than half of total employment and hosts most of the population).

Third, the Labor Force Survey also showed that at current rates of population growth, new jobs will have to be created for approximately 100,000 labour market entrants per year.  It provided evidence that in some periods “… vocational training is used, at least in part, to compensate for a lack of formal education …” since many individuals attended TECVOC institutions even before attending formal education and went on to undertake further education.

Also, obtaining a vocational certificate or diploma resulted in significant earnings gain. For example, training certificates from the Ministry of Labor and Social Services are “associated with median earnings that are around 50% higher relative to teaching diplomas.

It is against this background that we need an open and honest debate about the future of education in Sierra Leone given that the   youth bulge can become our worst nightmare or a demographic dividend like in India or Vietnam.

The 2014 Labour Survey cited earlier observed that “beyond job creation, in a context where most workers are engaged in low-productivity jobs, improving the quality of jobs is critical for poverty reduction.

Given that Sierra Leone is a post-conflict country, jobs are also central to sustained stability. Yet, despite the importance of jobs for the country, the design  of  policies  and  interventions  to  promote  these  opportunities  has  been constrained by a limited knowledge base”.

Quality Education Matters

Ladies and Gentlemen, allow me to talk more broadly about the urgent need for upgrading  the  Tertiary  Education  infrastructure,  management  and  curricula  in general.  Never in the history of human kind has knowledge been so determinate in shaping everyday life. Knowledge is indeed power.

But to realise and access that power and the fruits thereof which knowledge makes possible, we need to get education  right.  Getting  education  right  means  having  higher  standards  for  a functional  school  system,  and  a  tertiary/higher  education  system  anchored  on definable national goals and objectives for the overall progress of the nation-state and its citizens.

You will agree with me that we have made tremendous strides in rebuilding our educational  system  since  the  end  of  the  11-year  Civil  War,  and  scored  many successes both in the area Primary School enrolments and Gender Parity at the Primary and Junior Secondary School levels.

We have also seen the massive growth in enrolment in the tertiary education as well.  However, major problems remain.

The deteriorating infrastructure and overcrowding in the schools are indeed the physical and  outward  manifestations  of  the  malaise  that  currently  pervades  Higher Education in contemporary Sierra Leone.

To wit, some of our institutions are at an advanced stage of decay;  in others,  exam malpractices and  financial impropriety abound whilst many more are struggling  to hang to life from inadequate state subvention.

The University of Sierra Leone has and continues to operate as non-residential for more than a decade even with the injection of over $40 million loan signed in 2013 with OFID, BADEA and Saudi Arabia).

By contrast, Njala University seems to be underfunded and neglected. Both these two public higher learning institutions now have about 10,000 students and with a large number of senior faculty due to  retire within the next five years, these, for  sure,  cannot be the type of universities Sierra Leone needs.

Overcrowding, dilapidated campuses with inadequate facilities, libraries  without  books  and journals, now define higher education in the country. In 2009/10, the Ministry of Education set up a  Commission  under  Professor  Gbamanja  to  look  into  these  very problems.

Their recommendations included the phasing out of the  shift system; and providing  feeding for primary school kids. Eight good years have elapsed and  yet most of the major recommendations  remain  unimplemented.

Our Universities and Colleges are therefore calling on us for help to give them  the hope and opportunity to experience at last a paradigm shift with a potential to transform and improve their present miserable conditions.

To do that, we posit that a 10-year  Strategic  Framework  for  a  radical  transformation  of  the   Tertiary System as whole into a first class establishment fit for purpose and in sync with  the 21st Century is an urgent necessity.

If we are given the opportunity and privilege to become President of our beloved country, this objective will be among our topmost priorities. This focus is perfectly justifiable because we believe that to transform our society in this age, we need knowledge that is buttressed by top notch education institutions at  all  levels.

This unmet  need  automatically  raises  the  whole problematic of aligning curricula to national sustainable development requirements.

Aligning Curricula to National Development

As a nation, we must endeavour to train  our youth for their future and not for our past. This implies that  National Schools Curricula  must be geared towards making our students employable.  A 2013 World Bank Bank Tertiary Education Policy Note which included the results of a Survey of Employment Status of recent graduates of the University of Sierra Leone (USL) gave the following statistics:

  • 55% were looking for work;
  • 16% were employed;
  • 16% were engaged in further education or training; 7% reported not doing anything; and Data from 2007 showed that it takes SL youth about 3-5 years (all education levels) to make the school-to-work transition.

This brings us to comments we made a couple of weeks ago on the Voice of America (VOA) about disciplines such as Peace and Conflict Studies. The comments were not in any way meant  to  demean or disparage any  profession,  but  rather  to  raise awareness and draw attention to the need for urgent action to align Learning and Skills Formation with national development priorities.

And this not new. A similar call for realignment of curricula can be found in the current Government’s Agenda for  Prosperity,  Local  Content  Policy  and  even  the  Agriculture  Development  Policy.

Significantly, the Local Content Policy highlights strategies that the GOSL should take  to  support  Higher  and  Tertiary  Education  institutions  to  include  “… transform[ing]  the  Education  Curriculum  of  Tertiary,  Vocational,  Technical  and Commercial Education institutions to prioritise Science and Technology according to the skills requirements of the industrial sector,…align the Education Curriculum of Tertiary, Vocational, Technical  and  Commercial  Educational  institutions  with the growth sectors of the economy, such as Mining, Oil and Gas, Fisheries, Agriculture, etc. … to produce a skilled workforce for these sectors in 2025″.

We reiterate that it was within this context of a general curriculum review and alignment initiative that we made our comments in the VOA interview referred to above.  In fact, our intention was not to belittle Peace and Conflict Majors, but rather to defend the rights of graduating students and youth to secure “decent and productive jobs” as called for under Goal 8 of the Sustainable Development Goals.

With this clarification, we are keen and prepared to engage in objective and open dialogue with students, faculty and employers about the pressing national need to align and sync the curricula of our national educational  institutions  with  the demands of the 21st Century, if we are to succeed in creating future decent and productive work for our citizens, particularly the youth. (End of keynote speech).

4 Comments

  1. I couldn’t agree more with you Ray. Let me hasten to say that we do have a coalition of TVET in Sierra Leone and I will be glad to engage you further on this subject as far as Sierra Leone is concerned. I could definitely see the synergy of your work and what we seeks to achieve as a coalition of TVET in Sierra Leone

  2. From the moment Kandeh Yumkella announced the suspension of his SLPP presidential aspiration with a view to forming a coalition to fight the 2018 elections, I could tell that the gloves were off on the part of his opponents within SLPP and APC who have never had to deal with somebody so educated, so articulate and daring, who produces authentic statistics to support his claims.

    In the absence of counter arguments, critics of Yumkella are beginning to resort to filthy tactics in their nervous state to divert attention from the real issues which have kept the country in the doldrums for decades, stifling everything positive for which the country was once known.

    Surely the example which Kandeh gave of $250,000 being used to fix a single street light recently must have touched raw nerves in the establishment, causing enormous anguish.

    In Kandeh Yumkellah we have a jinn that is out of the bottle and has assumed its supernatural capabilities. No one among the political elite knows where its going to hit next with devastating efficiency, making preemptive measures impossible.

    This should explain, with no ambiguity, why some have been criticising Kandeh for expressing the wholesome truth that Peace Studies are not what the country needs at the moment, but professions which development orientated countries all over the world have used for bewildering economic and social success.

    It is such development consciousness which such a tiny country as Singapore, with no known natural resources, has mustered under Lee Kuan Yew to jump from a developing nation to a developed one.

    In one of the last interviews he gave before his passing in 2015, he said that if he had his time all over again he would study engineering not law. It is said that even in the final days of his life he had so much influence on the young that a significant number of them opted to study engineering.

    It was Lee Kuan Yew’s recognition that the technical field was where a country’s fundamental development lies, without demeaning other fields.

    When I read the Cocorioco newspaper, it was as if Kandeh Yumkella has committed a mortal sin by emphasising the need for the country to re-orient itself, by restructuring its educational system to make it more technical and technology focused, which was what the Germans did to recover from the ashes of the second world war. Can some one tell me what is wrong with that?

    It is indeed a tragedy for a nation to have fallen so low as not to recognise what it has do to help itself, and when somebody like Kandeh points out the truth, he should be regarded as an outcast – a curse.

    Those of us who still believe in mother Sierra Leone; wishing she will stop crying of her own children battering her to helplessness, should stand up and utter truth to power – whatever the cost may be. Kandeh Yumkella is leading the way, let us follow him.

    If we make the monumental mistake of voting for either SLPP or APC at the next elections, the 21st century, nearly a quarter of which we have already completed will see mother Sierra Leone shed her last tears, a signal that we are at the gates of the opposite side of heaven.

    Let us all cast our biases aside and kick the two major parties out in 2018.

  3. I have visited Sierra Leone several times and have seen the desperate need for the upgrading and creation of technical and vocational school infrastructure. My last visit was in February of this year and I was confronted with this issue more severely than on any other visit.

    I’m a US mechanical engineer engaged in volunteer development work in rural Sierra Leone and I’m in a position to see and understand this issue perhaps more clearly than those with non-technical backgrounds. I have a great desire to see Sierra Leone succeed and grow. And I feel that building up the tech/voc infrastructure is essential to this.

    In particular, I see a huge need for the introduction of a machine tool/machine shop (and related disciplines) curriculum and also (ultimately) the creation of that industry in Sierra Leone. I hope to be involved in this in some way.

    Since this is on Dr. Yumkella’s mind, at some point, I would greatly appreciate the opportunity to offer my input and/or discuss it with him.

    Blessings to all in Salone!
    Ray Proud

    • I should have added earlier that I would be happy to speak with anyone who is serious about this subject. I think that creating a network of interested people is a necessary starting point.

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