Liberia, just recovering from the ravages of a devastating civil crisis that had untold consequences not only on lives and properties but on its valuable human resource capacity, must ensure the existence of viable Higher Education (HE) institutions as well as functional Technical and Vocation Education and Training (TVET) institutions to further its development agenda. Currently, there is no shortage of HE institutions in the country.
From three tertiary institutions in the 1980s, the country today boasts of two Master’s Degree granting HE institutions, nine Bachelor’s Degree and 19 Associate Degree granting institutions nationwide with estimated enrolment of 44,000. Numerous TVET institutions are also sprouting up in Liberia, some government-run and others nonpublic. What remains to be seen however, is the quality of services these HE and TVET institutions are providing to propel Liberia’s development goals. Are products of these institutions being fully equipped with the right skills and knowledge to meet the competing demands of an industrialized, entrepreneurial private sector? In this section of our Special Education Report, Capitol Insider takes a closer look into some key gains made by HE and TVET institutions and the challenges they face in producing a wholesome, functional cadre of the Liberian workforce.
HE Gains, Reforms and Challenges
Created by an Act of Legislature in 1851, the University of Liberia, then known as Liberia College, remains the nation’s highest government-funded tertiary education institution, producing the largest segment of student enrolment in the country – 31,000 out of 44,000. The University of Liberia, popularly known as UL, offers undergraduate programs in the humanities, science and business. Master’s Degree programs in political science, social development, peace studies and business administration were also added over the years. To date, the University, as sole granter of professional post-graduate degrees in the fields of Medicine and Law in the country, is responsible for producing the sprinkling of medical doctors and lawyers that are so much demanded in postwar Liberia. Cuttington University (CU), a private-run tertiary institution, was established in 1889 to meet the growing demands of higher education in the country.
CU now offers Master’s Degree programs to meet Liberia’s rising job market demand on seminal degree qualification. Decades later in 1978, the William V.S. Tubman College (WVSTC) was also established, making it the second largest public tertiary institution in the country. Those were the three recognized tertiary institutions operating in Liberia before the civil war which caused massive brain drain of many trained university professors and instructors, and resulted to the high influx of bachelor degree holders teaching at these universities. Following the war, there was a growing need to regulate the activities of many of the new universities and colleges that had cropped up.
In 2007, the National Commission on Higher Education (NCHE) shut down 28 of such institutions which were termed “bogus”. Under government’s education reform initiatives, the tertiary education curriculum was synchronized with the aim of standardizing course outline and instructional methodologies, especially for freshman and sophomore courses. The reform process saw the inclusion of science and technology as required course for all tertiary institutions; and the acceptance of credits between universities. Government’s education reform initiatives also culminated to the establishment of four regional colleges in Bomi, Grand Bassa, Lofa and Nimba Counties, signaling the beginning of decentralization for tertiary education. Despite the expansion of Liberia’s tertiary education, the quality of service delivery for many of these institutions remains of grave concern to stakeholders. At a May 2013 Education Roundtable Conference, President Sirleaf aptly amplified the dearth of quality tertiary education when she observed that university graduates are equally performing poorly as some are unable to write a proper letter.
She further lamented the fact the while universities in the country continue to put out huge number of graduates, the majority of them may find difficulty in securing employment as they lack the requisite competence for the job market. “We have made our Medical, Agriculture and Teachers Colleges free, yet our young people do not enter these colleges in sufficient numbers. Today for whatever reason, there’s not a single doctor who is graduating. There is one pharmacist who is graduating in a post-conflict country that desperately needs engineers, scientists and teachers. Today, 925 of you are coming out of Business College, compared to 146 graduating from the College of Science and Technology, 106 from Agriculture and 65 from the Teachers College,” Sirleaf observed when she delivered the 93rd UL Commencement Convocation speech at its 2012 graduation ceremony. Many University staffers agree to the problem of quality output. “The university should not be established mainly for academic and instructional reasons. Universities must be research based. Liberian universities lack research facilities.
There is no national library to support such research endeavor. In this day and age, most of our universities don’t even have fitting computer lab, not to talk about laboratory. Students are learning mainly from pamphlets,” laments Tom Nimely Chie, Associate Professor at the University of Liberia Graduate School and the Cuttington University Graduate School. To meet the rising demand for doctors and lawyers in the country, Professor Chie believes the University of Liberia needs to institute serious policy reforms. “For example, this is the country where I see one must first obtain an undergraduate degree before entering medical or law school. This policy is creating serious shortage of trained lawyers and medical doctors,” he said, noting that university curriculum must be realistic enough to address the job demands of an industrialized private sector.
The issue of funding, Prof Chie also observed, is a serious impediment to the implementation of critical reform programs for tertiary education. “The University of Liberia alone needs US$75 million to undertake critical programs for the Fiscal Year 2015/2016, but only US$15 million was allocated to the University in the current national budget. This speaks to the seriousness that government attaches to reform in the education sector. We need to be realistic,” he stated.
TVET Reforms, Gains and Challenges
If Liberia must move ahead in its national recovery efforts, the future lies well within the employability of its youths and their capacity to deliver the skills required in an industrialized postwar nation. Technical and vocation skills trainings are therefore sine qua non in filling the huge unemployment gaps created by an ill-prepared tertiary education sector that produces more bureaucrats than technocrats; and a secondary education sector that has more overage students and high dropout rate. Leading the bandwagon in this direction, the Monrovia Vocational Training Centre (MVTC) remains a paragon of excellence.
The Centre recently graduated 750 young men and women in various disciplines including Mechanics, Electronics and Building Construction. “TVET is the way forward for development. Many concessions operating in the country still import manpower mainly because we lack the necessary skills to perform the jobs that demand industrial training. This is why companies and concessions in the private sector, beside the government, need to seriously invest in the TVET sector to align the job market with trained manpower,” says Dave Paye Doe, Assistant Director for Administration at the MVTC. The Centre takes the training of its students very seriously, to the extent that it has included 10 of the recent graduates on the 25 man team that will travel to China for advanced administrative and TVET training in October 2015. Beside the MVTC program, eight other TVET programs are currently managed by the Ministry of Education, with the Booker Washington Institute (BWI) leading the pack. At BWI, students are for the first time learning to operate and repair modern computerized heavy duty machines, under the “Komatsu” program. Government’s education reform in this direction saw the blending of TVET curriculum with high schools around the country. The formulation and launch of a national TVET policy in 2015 evidently underscores the seriousness government and its development partners attach to bridging the widening unemployment gap, aligning technical and vocational skills training with formal education, and producing a competent, qualified workforce for the private sector. How government and its development partners work to ensure that the TVET program becomes more gender mainstreamed, well-funded and aligned with private sector job demands, will determine the level of success of this crucial segment of the education sector, as well as the pace of national development.