Sierra Leone’s higher education sector in crisis: Njala fights to survive

The Sierra Leone Telegraph: 21 July 2013

Bo districtSierra Leone’s higher education sector is in crisis. Thousands of students are leaving university with qualifications that are unfit for purpose, and making little contribution to wealth creation.

The country’s premier universities are almost bankrupt due to lack of funds.

Yet institutions which would otherwise struggle to gain university accreditation status in other parts of Africa, are not only mushrooming across Sierra Leone, but receiving university status.

While it is understandable that the demand for higher education since the end of the war in 2001 has more than quadrupled, many students leaving school are entering university simply to avoid joining the millions of unemployed youths languishing in the streets – unable to find employment.

It is uncertain how much the government is spending on higher education in real terms, as the bulk of budget allocation announced every year in parliament by the finance minister, never get to the bank accounts of the institutions.

As a result of the lack of funding, the country’s premier higher education institutions – Fourah Bay College and Njala University are dogged by serious financial crisis management. Learning is impaired and standards are being compromised.

Dr. kailfala marrahRecognising the need for more spending on higher education, the finance minister – Dr. Keifala Marah, was in the US in April, where he signed a $13 million loan agreement with the Director General of OPEC Fund for International Development (OFID).

The cost of developing the country’s higher education sector in response to the government’s Agenda for Prosperity could run into hundreds of millions of dollars.

Perhaps that explains the perceived disconnect between the potential role of the higher education sector in wealth creation and the government’s Agenda for Prosperity.

As finance minister Marah admitted – “The cost of rehabilitating Fourah Bay College alone – is estimated at $36.65 Million.”

Njala University studentsSo what about Njala University, which many believe to be making immense practical contribution to the country’s agriculture industry and health sector, where hundreds of newly qualified specialists leave the institution every year to take up employment in both private and public sectors?

Critics say that Njala has always been regarded as the Cinderella of the higher education sector – under-funded and poorly managed. And as Elias Bangura reports from Freetown, management at Njala University are angry at the government’s marginalisation of their university and are calling for more resources in order to survive:

Principal of Njala University – Professor Abu Sesay, told the Parliamentary Committee on Education last Friday, 19th July, that the country’s leading university is grossly under-funded, and requested for this to be reconsidered against the next budget round.

Professor Sesay told the Committee, which was on a working visit to educational institutions in the south, east and northern regions of Sierra Leone, that Njala was allocated a paltry sum of Le29 billion Leones ($675, 000) in the 2013 Budget.

“It is why our constraints are so many – our science and teaching labs are below standard; our equipment are poor; we have inadequate library facilities; poorly stocked computer labs; inadequate infrastructure and classrooms, including offices; and inadequate staff accommodation.”

Added to of all that, are the backlogs of unpaid drawbacks and salaries, and if that is not addressed, there is the possibility that Njala may have to drop some of its workforce and programmes.

Njala University1“In fact we had the unhelpful situation where some good people had to leave because we don’t have the money to keep them here. We made appeals and had hoped we would be considered in the supplementary budget that was passed recently by Parliament, but there was nothing in it for Njala.

“We are begging people to come on board and help us. People indeed want to come and work at Njala. We are going through a lot; my staff are working with a lot of commitment.  I was at the University of Botswana, where I was earning a lot of money compared to here, but this is our nation.”

In spite of these constraints however, Professor Abu Sesay said Njala is rising.

“In Sierra Leone, we are number one, and we rank very high in Africa and the world – the fact is this is a competitive world and I say, let’s compete so that the nation benefits.”

The benefits are indeed many, the Committee conceded, because for Njala to rise again to this level after 15 years of neglect and wanton destruction during the war years, is indeed a marvel.

“Today, Njala stands as an institution whose vision is to be an outstanding world class centre of learning, scholarship and community service. It recently received an award in India to that effect.”

“Yes, Njala is number one in Sierra Leone,” says Professor Abu Sesay. “Our position came out of commitment and hard work; and our mission is to provide good people, people who can go and perform. Our major goals are quality research, excellent teaching, intensify research productivity, and to become a major driver in the country’s socio-economic development.

“Today, our strategic objective is to establish international partnerships, strengthen staff capacity, provide relevant and high quality programs, and create a conducive learning environment for all our students.

“Our future lies in partnering with international universities – currently, our partners are the University of Illinois, University of Guelph in Canada, and the University of Toronto, and others.”

YumkellaLooking back, since 1964 when Njala University was founded, and in 2005 when it became an autonomous university, there is a lot to be proud about, including some of its illustrious alumni, among them are: Dr. Monty Jones – co winner of the World Food Prize in 2004; Kandeh Yumkella – former head of UNIDO; Alimamy P. Koroma – the current Minister of Works and Infrastructure; I.B. Kargbo – the former Information Minister and now Special Adviser to President Koroma, and many others. (Photo: Kandeh Yumkella).

Njala University offers a wide range of courses and research programmes, including agriculture, education, environmental sciences, technology, forestry and horticulture, social sciences, community health science, and a school of postgraduate studies.

There are three campuses – located in Bo, Mokondie, and Freetown. The main campus at Mokondie has been rebuilt to an acceptable standard, with ICT facilities and sixteen hours power supply.

Staff accommodations are under construction, although work has stopped because the contractor has not received his money.

“The point is that every staff ought to have quarters here, to be able to work effectively. We really need help in that regard. We have built a university guest house and the money we get from it is being invested in building other wings at the guest house. We have renovated both the male and female hostels, including those housing postgraduate students.

“We have bought an inter-campus bus and there is another that shuttles between Mokondie and Bo campuses. We have also bought a V-sat for internet connectivity.”

Njala RoadHowever the road that leads from the highway into the main campus is in bad shape – this, Professor Abu Sesay says, is because of lack of funds. He is asking the Parliamentary Committee to help in advocating for funds to be released by the necessary authorities.

“Looking ahead, Njala University is working on establishing partnerships in Liberia, Oklahoma and Canada.

Improvements are being made to the agri-business programme, the two-year remedial English course, a third-year course on entrepreneurship; the cross breeding with calves programme; as well as chickens, goats, and fish farming programmes; and there is also the oil palm cloning garden and processing technology.”

The Chairman of the Parliamentary Education Committee – Muluku Sulaiman who was highly impressed by efforts at Njala, made this comment:

“The Committee appreciates all these developments. It appreciates the warm welcome. It must be said that all this job was done under difficult conditions, and that makes it more commendable.

Njala Univerity2“It is wonderful to see the transformation that Njala University has gone through. The face of Njala University has changed, and this is against the background of constraints. Mr. Vice Chancellor, you and your team have done a wonderful job here.

“We are here to see what constraints you are going through and report back accordingly. Support for the university is key, because the quality it produces is what the nation becomes and we thank the leadership in every way.”

Deputy Chairman of the Committee – Dr. Roland Kargbo, an alumnus of Njala University, said he is exhilarated about the rapid growth and transformation he has seen. He encouraged the staff to keep up the good work.

Habib Bakarr Munda – MP, said he wants to thank the Principal and staff, and the Education Committee for the opportunity to see Njala University. “Please go on and seek the facilitation of the payment of contractors’ fees. I want to one day be a staff of this University. I will encourage Committee members to support Njala University’s plea for housing, and see to it that this problem of under-funding ends.”

Moiwai Momoh – MP, said that: “Njala University is one of the places Sierra Leoneans used to neglect – this should no more be the case: education should now be the topmost priority. We will try very hard to take your message to Parliament and the nation. No, Fourah Bay College would not be annoyed, but you should know that it is our lecturers there who have been skilfully brought over here to make this success, so the success is all ours. Please continue to fight to be at the top.”

Paramount Chief Joseph Alie Kavura Kongomoh II, said that he was impressed beyond measure. “I am defending Njala University because it belongs to me and my people. What you have done is impressive.

“We don’t have the power to help you out as a Committee, but we will report back accordingly; we thank you so much. I am hesitating to say what I want to say because I am neutral. However, we have to be very grateful to the current leadership of the nation for the help he has given to this university. Former President Kabbah had done his part; now this present leader is also doing his best to bring education on course.”

Umar Paran Tarawally MP, said that Njala is producing more courses, while FBC is producing Chinese courses. “FBC has been there for ages, they should come to Njala and learn their good work, instead of teaching old courses that have no relevance to today’s society.”

“For your contractors, please ensure that they carry on the work and please ask the banks to pre-finance these projects before they get to a worse state. I will take this issue to the Works Committee, to ensure that the road from Taiama to Njala is considered as a priority.”

In conclusion, the Committee said that where there is no leadership, the people perish. There is leadership at Njala University, and that leadership ought to be commended.

A staff  at the university – Dr. Bashiru Mohamed Koroma, the Dean of Environmental Sciences, said that although the university is faced with much constraints, yet they are thinking ahead to inject more determination among the staff. He requested for help in having environmentally friendly laboratories.

Dr. Adlyn O. Johnson, Acting Senior Deputy Registrar thanked the Committee on behalf of the university.  “Thank you for being here, we are delighted to receive you. Njala University has a lot to offer. We know you are going to push our agenda.

“We all love our country and Njala University is for all of us. Our appeal to you is: Please don’t forget about Njala University. Please make sure that our constraints are met.

“Njala University is doing a very important work. Make sure our monies are increased so that we don’t run away from the educational field; so that education can move forward. Help us to move forward…help us make sure Njala University stays ahead. We thank you.”

The visit ended with a tour of the campus and an inspection of the laboratories and facilities.