How can we be establishing more colleges when we say the education system is a mess? Who are going to attend these colleges? Would it be students that possess six-grade level education? I cannot help sighing in jest. What has happened to decision-makers in the Executive and Legislative Branches of our Government? Are they living on a different planet? Are they just politicizing policies to meet their own narrow self-interest?
Well, one of my learned colleagues insinuated recently that “Liberian public officials have lost commonsense reasoning and are making decisions based more on political leanings, tribal and sectional considerations. They have lost the verve to work in the national interest and are gradually driving a wedge that has the propensity to undermine national development and stability – education is not a plaything,” he averred.Education is a catalyst for development and a key ingredient that empowers citizens to leave the throes of poverty. Policies and strategies we initiate for reforms and to stop waste of state resources have to be led by a cadre of Liberians that have integrity, but who are also well educated. We have to make the education system work for us. We have to ensure that students in primary and secondary schools receive quality education. Establishing community colleges across Liberia is a worthwhile initiative, but only if it serves strategic developmental outcomes. Unfortunately, the basis for that strategic thrust does not exist at this time. The national budget is inadequate to meet existing demands. Currently, allocations to existing schools and colleges are miserably insufficient. Allocation to the Ministry of Education in the last three years totaled approximately 114 million, but more than 85 percent of this amount was spent on teachers’ salaries. Teachers’ salaries are low and have been the cause of constant strikes. We currently do not have the financial latitude to compensate teachers justly. So where will the money come from to support the proliferation of community colleges? In the 2012/13 budget, six community colleges were listed – Nimba, Gboveh, Grand Kru, Lofa and Bomi. Projections amounted to 1.69m for four colleges. Counties that receive county social development funds (CSDF) are constrained to contribute substantially to community colleges. CSDF allocated to community colleges have not been accountably utilized. Do we desire colleges managed with measly budgets that are just in name and not substance? Unfortunately, we are diverting funds needed to improve primary and secondary education to community college projects. For example, substantial amount of money is being spent on Community Colleges in Bong, Nimba and Grand Bassa counties when pivotal public high schools such as Gboveh, Sanniquellie Central and Bassa high schools are under funded and poorly equipped – with no functional laboratories or libraries. Now! An even more pressing issue is instruction. Who will teach at these community colleges? It is a known fact that there is substantial shortage of college-readied instructors/professors in Liberia. At the nation’s largest tertiary institution, the University of Liberia,one can count the number of PhDs on your fingers. Many of the instructors moonlight between two jobs, thus increasing absenteeism and reducing commitments in providing effective oversight of instructional obligations. The challenge for many of the colleges sprouting is dealing with the lack of instructors and professors. It is only a matter of time when complaints about student quality emerges from future employers. The embellishment of degrees will only serve to give young graduates a false sense of entitlement to jobs they are ill prepared to handle. Liberia’s educational system is facing a difficult conundrum in governance and deliverability, and for citizens who believe after years of studies their lives should be bettered, this is a real predicament. We need incisive policies and strategies at this critical period, and also strong, innovative and visionary leadership from the top. The education system cannot be left to policymakers and leaders that are indecisive, corrupt and weak. The tradition that a degree in education is a prerequisite for selecting officials to manage the education system needs to be reviewed. A track record in successfully leading and directing institutional transformation must be a key criterion in determining appointments. If they are competent so be it, but it must be noted that many individuals with degrees in education have shown incompetence and continue to wreck the system because they are the few degree holders. Leadership must be merit. We have to risk getting Liberians that are effective managers, but not necessarily holders of degrees in education to assist in reforming the system. We have to be open-minded about appointees to the Ministry of Education. There are many capable managers that have degrees that are not aligned with sectors they manage, but they perform above average. Wall Street firms in the US are known to recruit employees with degrees in political science and other liberal arts to run big banking and financial institutions. That’s the kind of thinking out of the box idea that could help.The proliferation of colleges must be halted as it does little to change the current state of the education system. The mushrooming of public colleges has seen the sprouting of substandard private colleges that are mostly extorting money from students than giving them a decent education. One of the key culprits in all of this is the Board of Higher Education, which has shown ineptitude and lack of focus in implementing rigorous guidelines for the establishment of universities and colleges. The Board has accredited colleges like St. Clements in Paynesville that offers courses in engineering when they do not have adequate instructional staff or laboratory facilities. Many existing colleges, including the University of Liberia, AME University, Smythe and United Methodist University clamor for the few professors available and have to make do with some “professors” with questionable credentials. The Board of Higher Education should be stringent in maintaining standards, but is wrecking college education. The government insouciance in reforming the Board and changing its leadership opens the floodgate for establishing community colleges and proliferation of substandard private colleges. Thomas Nah is Executive Director of the Center for Transparency and Accountability in CENTAL, the Liberian Chapter of Transparency International, the global anti-corruption organization. Mr. Nah is also National Coordinator of the Coalition for Transparency and Accountability in Education (COTAE). Twitter: @loveofliberty and email: firstname.lastname@example.org