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%.
- 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).