columnBy Stephen B. Lavalah
The unswerving and unrelenting scorn of the educational system in Africa's oldest independent nation is completely reprehensible for a country that experienced a prolonged brutal and barbaric civil crisis, which ravaged every sector. During the long years of senseless and gruesome strife, nearly all of the infrastructural facilities that played host to educational institutions were severely damaged. A great deal of outstanding Liberian educators were either viciously murdered in cold blood or narrowly escaped into exile or some kind of safe havens in search of survival. Some students were conscripted in various warring factions while others abandoned classes to serve as 'freedom fighters'. As a matter of fact, graduation gowns, caps, hoods and tassels which symbolize academia were being used as battle front clothing for malicious hooligans who were profoundly supported through direct assistance from well-educated Liberians and others with good financial influence. Moreover, institutions and individuals' precious documents were loosely scattered within close proximity or long-distance places, because of the ignorance of dissident forces. The absolute lack of knowledge resulted into massive looting and destruction of public facilities that wreaked social services and brought untold and inhuman suffering to many Liberians and foreigners alike. Besides, a good number of academics and other professionals fell prey to the hands of unschooled hoodlums which led to the sharp increase in the human resource capacity gap and drastic brain drain.
It is without doubt that the aftermaths of over a decade of civil conflict have left behind enormous challenges and lapses in the educational system. Even though, nowadays, majority of those who planned and spearheaded the conflict are in decision and policy making level of the government; however, nothing much have been achieved in a so-called quest to emancipate the down-trodden massive particularly through well-deserved empowerment in education. In fact, these unpatriotic, power greed and egocentric caliber of people often degrade, belittle, underrate and neglect scores of people, who have obtained Liberian education. Every so often, they publicly utter all sorts of sarcastic remarks against the country's educational system which they immensely contributed to destroying. At the same time, they swiftly utilized ill-gotten wealth to support their children, grandchildren and immediate relatives in foreign institutions of learning.
Sardonic utterances in relation to the educational system are not only unique to former warlords, but it has become an integral component for high ranking government officials, most especially during major commencement speeches, national addresses and other academic discourses without even propagating substantial recommendations to improving the system. This perceived mentality by most members of the ruling establishment that Liberian education is not well-matched with other counterparts speaks volume of the status of the country's educational system. For classic example, a Harvard trained political and economic administrator, Honorable Amara Konneh, who has got two distinct senior cabinet positions (Minister of Finance and Minister of Planning & Economic Affairs) because of the perception that only a handful of Liberians have the competence and qualification to administer any government entity, asserted during a national conference on education held at Cuttington University main campus that most university graduates are unable to write letter of application. Though, Minister Konneh fell short to identify who's responsible for the root cause of the problem, nonetheless, the Minister whose office promulgated the much talk about Poverty Reduction Strategy developed by the government to improve the living standards of its citizens, shamelessly affirmed that the nation's educational system was never on par with any in the sub-region.
To further confirm Minister Konneh's assertion, another Harvard accomplished public administrator, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf elucidated during her State of the Nation Address in January 2012 that sixth and ninth graders are below average in math and reading while twelfth graders rank near the bottom. President Sirleaf went on to say many students graduating from high school and college are reading and writing at the junior high or elementary school level. From the President's pronouncement, many Liberians have begun pondering on lots of questions: First and foremost, who is responsible for the worsening and deplorable educational system. Who created such conditions? Where are the Liberian text books to read, instead of repeatedly learning to read about snowball or apple that most pupils in urban and rural areas have not seen and may possibly not see? What programs are being instituted in order to nurture and cultivate the desire of students to read and develop admiration for the sciences? Where are the public libraries, resource centers and laboratories across the country that could serve as impetus to inspire students to achieve academic excellence? Isn't it the responsibility of the government to ensure its citizens get nothing less than topnotch education? As the people patiently await appropriate responses; it seems to be no one really cares, because a good number of high ranking government officials do not have their children, grandchildren and immediate relatives acquiring education in the country.
Reflecting the Status quo
Indeed, Liberia's educational system is taking an awful and backward trend on a daily basis, instead of steadily making progress. The country's Human Development Index is appallingly low; it ranks 182 out of 187 countries and illiteracy rate sum up to approximately 85 percent. Education in Liberia is engulfed with bribery, sex for grade, lack of infrastructural facilities, furniture and other relevant equipment coupled with numerous unqualified instructors and inadequate salaries and accompanying benefits. In spite of the huge challenges, qualified and competent teachers have to travel long distances on terrible roads to reach county capitals and Monrovia to obtain just benefits, which sometime last for five to nine months. Every now and then, instructors clustered the lobby of the Ministry of Education and adapt all sorts of unintentional posture to claim the government attention to settle arrears. Accordingly, many teachers across Liberia devote more time to collecting pay checks as oppose to impacting knowledge. Several teachers all too often laid down their chalks and abandoned the classrooms in demand of salaries or increment. For this reason, a number of public and private schools students often carry out countless street protests to call the government to its duties. It can be recalled that in October 2012, students from the Monrovia Consolidated School System took to the streets in Monrovia and its suburbs to draw government attention to the prolonged closure of their schools due to salary disparity. In fact, some secondary schools teachers have died in the quest to obtain long-awaited salaries while in Monrovia.
Above and beyond, these circumstances have resulted into many senior high schools students massively failing the West African Examination Council (WAEC) exams as substantiated in the results of the last five conservative years. Furthermore, the situation has also led to sex for grades in tertiary institutions to be on the increase according to Action Aid 2011 report, which focused on how girls are acquiring education. Similarly, 'Super Friday', a social event usually held on Friday, where secondary schools students go on beaches in Monrovia and its environs to smoke and drink alcoholic beverages has become so rampant leading to the death of promising young men and women who do not have any appropriate programs in school that would one way or the other minimize or if possible eradicate the act of going to the beach during school hours and even after to engage into unwholesome practices. Sadly, the government has approved for lottery booths to be station at every street corner in central Monrovia and even beyond, where bulk of the youngsters are getting involved with gambling under the disguise of sports betting. This condition has prompted many young people to constantly check their phone or buy a sports newspaper or calibrate number so as to obtain results from the lotteries. Within a short span of time, Premier Sports Betting and Winner Incorporated have taken over the entire political capital and increasingly moving toward the rural parts of Liberia. Therefore, one can only mull over the outcome of both companies continuous existence.
More to the point, the government has deliberately authorized private institutions of learning to hike tuition and other fees. Take for instance, two former Ministers of Education in persons of Dr. Joseph Korto and Othello Gongar flimsily argued that the government is incapacitated to determine how much each school charges. Although the government has got statutory responsibility to regulate and grant operational license to all institutions of learning and ensure that schools are in conformity with established standards, so it beats one imagination to comprehend why the government will articulate that it does not have regulating power on tuition and other fees. Anyway, with the high rate of unemployment amidst the illusive 20,000 jobs per annum and alarming destitution, one might possibly deduced that most parents or guardians cannot afford to send their children to any topnotch institution so easily. To make the matter even worst, many students who are self-sponsored can barely attend classes regularly due to financial constraints and perpetual hardship in searching for remunerations to settle arrears. Yet again, the government new Education Reform Act of 2010 passed by the 52nd Legislature speaks of the establishment of County School Board charged with the responsibility of regulating academic activities in the county among other things. The Education Reform Act also makes provisions for free education from primary to junior high in all public schools. Conversely, one wonders if the county school board and free education is workable, effective, and efficient, because the Free and Compulsory primary education has too many shortcomings and numerous lapses. Besides, in Monrovia and other parts of the country, many children are roaming the streets corners during school hour complain of overcrowded classrooms while others recount the lack of public school in their communities or electoral districts as other factors.
Notwithstanding, the government has indicated that it plans to construct more public schools, renovate dilapidated school buildings, and provide additional subsidies to institutions of learning. Undeniably, several schools have been constructed or renovated without adequate and qualified instructional staffs while in other parts of the country and even along a two-mile road that leads to the historic Marshall City, there is completely no public school. Irrefutably, a number of schools have been renovated across the country, but many schools are without furniture, library, and laboratory needless to say play ground. Indisputably, the government has unevenly provided subsidies to tertiary institutions and selected secondary schools, yet tuition and other fees continue to skyrocket to the extent that the state-run University of Liberia has decided to dramatically double the fees for the credit hour of its undergraduate program from US$2.50 per credit to an irreversible US$5 per credit under the careful watch of a government that claims to be investing in the human resource development of young people. Certainly, the government can boast of 11 state-owned and church-supported institutions, including community colleges and the Senji Polytechnic, with a combined enrollment of 44,000 students, nevertheless, the population of 1980 can in no way be compared to Liberia's population in the 21st Century. Hence, many educational pundits believe that the number of higher learning institutions is far below the expected figure for a country which experienced 14 years of devastation and nightmare. Besides, the quality and potential of most of those who graduated from schools in the 80s and back cannot be compared to nearly all graduates as evidenced in the President's commencement address during the December 19, 2012 graduation exercise of the University of University, where the Visitor to the University declared that universities in Liberia are not producing the desirous human resource capacity that is much needed to develop the country.
Despite the fact that the government with support from international partners and friendly nations had revamped the entire teacher training institutes across the country and provided tuition free programs for the Medical, Agriculture and Teachers Colleges at the University of Liberia along with monthly stipends for students; however, regardless of these efforts, many people are not fascinated about the manners and forms in which teachers are being treated. Thus only a few young people would choose to seek admission to the Teachers College. Moreover, some astute and persevering students who opt to endure the threats and intimidations from the "only syndrome" (the constant tendency of boasting of being the only medical doctor in a specified field in the entire country) instructors all too often get demotivated and divert to another discipline. All the more so, the salaries and accompanying benefits do not commensurate with present-day realities for fervent medical doctors, who strive to complete the studies in spite of the prevailing circumstances. Anyway, it is not only medical doctors that are faced with such unacceptable and unbearable conditions; there are other medical practitioners like Registered Nurses, Physician Assistants, Nurse Aides, Pharmacists, and Laboratory Technicians among others, who switch to another professional as a result of low incentive and logistical support. Likewise, most agriculturists struggle to obtain employment opportunity upon graduation and others who are privileged to get hold of jobs, often complaint of similar situation being encountered by medical practitioners. Time and again, some who managed to establish a considerable agriculture projects in most cases do not easily get support from public and private sectors.
Although the government continues to expand vocational opportunities through the advancement of Booker Washington Institute, partnership with the Liberia Opportunities Industrialization Center together with the Liberian National Red Cross and souring support of the People's Republic of China to upgrade the Monrovia Vocational Training Center, however, there remain huge gap to be filled. Instead of boasting and politicizing about the construction of community colleges in certain parts of the country with little or no professional staffs, basic equipment and local enrollment; the government should have invested in the construction of more vocational and technical institutions across the country. With an ambitious plan to create middle income class within 18 years, the most prudent thing would have been to invest in vocational and technical schools, because it is always the technicians that constitute the middle class in any country on the Earth and not pseudo community communities that are not even functional to a greater extent. Even the world's leading superpower, the United States of America has cultivated to invest in science and technology and other hands-on and technical skills. For typical example, on 7th February 2012, President Obama hosted the second-ever White House Science Fair, featuring research and inventions from more than 100 students representing 30 student teams which was designed to showcase the talents of America's next generation of scientists, engineers, inventors, and innovators. So, President Sirleaf should concentrate on developing a program that would inspire more young people to venture into the sciences instead of constant and perpetual criticism to justify that 'western educated' or 'foreign schooled' Liberians deserve lucrative and prestigious jobs because of their credentials.
Remembering the Past
Prior to the civil upheaval that destroyed every fabric of the society, most especially the educational sector, the government then worked assiduously to ensure that Liberia had first-class educational system and institutions of learning. The educational system was in accordance with acceptable international standards and on a par with other western institutions. That state of affairs attracted many Africans from all walks of life and foreigners from across the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans to become zealous to acquire Liberia's excellent education for many years especially in the late 60s to 80s. Even some Americans sought to acquire Liberian education through student exchange programs or perhaps out of free will. Liberia had one of the best medical colleges (the A.M. Dogliotti College of Medicine); one of the greatest schools of pharmacy; one of the foremost law schools (Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law); and other professional institutions. In addition, the undergraduate schools also captivated more and more foreign students to the extent the even Ghanaians, South Africans, Ugandans, and Sierra Leonean coupled with so many nationals were eager to attend undergrad institutions.
During those flourishing and prosperous times in the nation's history, the sons and daughters of almost all cabinet ministers and other high profile government officials were attending schools in Liberia. Thus, decision makers always endeavored to work so as to ensure that the educational system was similar in temperament with western education. In the political capital, Monrovia, the exertion for academic excellence could vividly be manifested when Saint Patrick and William V. S. Tubman High School met in academic challenge competitions or some kind of scholastic activities. Evidently, outside of Monrovia, the eagerness and farsightedness of students enrolled at the Booker Washington Institute, Saint Peter Clavers High, LAMCO Area School System, Vionjama Multi-lateral and institutions in other parts of the country to acquire state-of-the-art education was incredible. The government did its utmost best to ensure moral discipline and integrity among students. Government officials and decision makers in the educational sector were keen to promote affordable, available, effective and efficient education for all. Consequently, other nationals employed with the many concession companies at the time chose not to send their children back home, but rather decided to give them Liberian education. Besides, during the good old days, young people were given scholarships to study abroad in abundant in spite of surnames or creed or status though it might somewhat be debatable.
Restoring the Pride
In this new age, when most nations are significantly advancing in all aspects of education, Liberian educational system, which was in the limelight of excellence and citadel of topnotch education should begin to regain its pre-war status, even surpass other nations and take its rightful place among the comity of nations. The time has surely passed for unending condemnation of Liberia's educational system. This moment is upon key decision makers and strategic member of the ruling establishment to jump-start the process that would ensure the dignity and prestige of earning Liberian education is respected. Irrespective of the educational turmoil, there are scores of talented and well-schooled Liberians, who have meritoriously acquired complete Liberian education and as such they should be accorded similar opportunity like their other countrymen and countrywomen that received western or foreign education.
In so doing, President Sirleaf should contemplate on providing an enabling environment, where competition would exist, instead of continually vouching that the western or foreign educated Liberians have the requisite skills and technical know-how it takes to get the work done. Obviously, a lot of the ordinary people do appreciate the contributions of most western and foreign schooled Liberians, but the fact remains that there are some who have got bogus academic credentials. So, the President consistent, insistent and persistent tendency to appoint or designate only western or foreign educated Liberians to head ministries, agencies and public corporations have to a larger extent demotivated and devalued Liberian educational system. As a matter of fact, since the inception of her presidency, President Sirleaf has intentionally refused to appoint even one knowledgeable Liberian educated to a senior cabinet position. This action on the part of the President has clearly and openly demonstrated the President's distrust and unwillingness to improve Liberia's deplorable and worsening educational system. Make no mistake; this is not just about providing political accommodations for a handful of well connected individuals with Liberian education to junior cabinet positions or other subordinate jobs. This is about ensuring broad and plain level playing fields, where people are allowed to compete despite school of origin. After all, many scholars and researchers have theorized that it is not the school one graduates from that matters, but rather it is the ability to prove oneself. Therefore, as the long-awaited and heavily publicized reshuffle is still pending, President Sirleaf should carefully consider the appointment of at least an individual with a complete Liberian education to a senior cabinet position. This would help to inspire many Liberian to strive for academic excellence and excel beyond imagination, because they would definitely see that person achievement as a success story to acquire Liberian education.
The Government has got to stop politicizing every aspect of the educational system. Decision and policy makers should work diligently to ensure the full implementation of the Education Reform Act of 2010 as well as prioritize other policies so as to transform Liberia's education. In the same vein, the Government should now begin to invest in education at all levels for all segments of the population including physically challenged individuals. The monitoring and evaluation unit of the Ministry of Education should be empowered and equipped to perform its duties and responsibilities in order to enforce government's regulations.
Heads of government entities have got to stop the tendency of widely publicizing and boasting of training two to five persons in other parts of the world to contribute to their entities' capacity, when there is huge capacity gap in the public sector. Liberia deserves better than to trend on a path of the old-fashioned 'did well' mentality. Hence, heads of government entities should begin to rethink and design strategic framework which would ensure construction of specialized institutions to cope with the growing demand of experts in specific fields. Take for instance, the Ministry of Justice through its Bureau of Corrections and Rehabilitation could concentrate of building the first ever Prison College. Even the National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL) that regulates and administers Liberia's nascent oil and gas sector should contemplate on empowering and enabling more Liberians to acquire diverse professions in this budding sector instead of propagating and swanking about training a handful of individuals. Regrettably, most of NOCAL's training program is skewed towards the management aspect and not the technical and production area of the oil industry. The guided path of developing the human resource capacity in the public sector would decrease government's expenditure on consultancy, provide employment opportunities and boost the economy.
The government should also begin to invest in research so as to provide grant opportunities to institutions of learning and individuals to undertake various projects ranging from science and technology to food and agriculture to business and finance to education and health. With resources available for research, professors will begin to write Liberian text books in different disciplines. This would also breed Liberia's next generation of scientists, engineers, inventors, authors and innovators that could rebuild the broken fabrics of their war-torn country. Besides, the government should think about providing subsidies to all educational institutions so as to improve the standard of learning. Notwithstanding, school authorities should stop being only keen about collecting tuition and other fees, instead they should consider requesting for student's credentials and carrying out background check to ascertain the student academic record.
Liberia's educational system has got to boom and outshine other nations. This campaign to reclaim the educational system cannot be won by one person or institution or government, but to a certain extent it would take the collective effort of every individual, institution, government and its developmental partners. The country's abundant resources will be meaningless if the population is uneducated; thus, every Liberian should strive to reform the educational system.
About the author: Mr. Stephen B. Lavalah is an advocate and the Founder/Executive Director of Youth Exploring Solutions (YES).