Remodeling Higher Education in Liberia: Driving Innovative Learning and Rebuilding Competitive Academic Reputation

By Samuel K. Goteh

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
January 25, 2015



The debate on robust transformation in the education sector is fermenting daily with an outcry of citizens, parents and well-meaning Liberians in every knob and corner of the country with constant participation of the diaspora community. Many commentators, observers and scholars in the educational disciplines have penned down volumes of dossiers and academic publications with their expert opinions and suggestions in cleaning the ‘mess’ that engulfs the system. Do you imagine even amongst the first 100 top universities in Africa, there is no single university in Liberia that appears on that sheet? This is really frustrating and shaming as the oldest country on the continent, we are unable to provide quality education and healthcare to your people even after 11 years of peace, stability, rule of law and functioning democratic governance system. Lots have been said about improving primary and secondary education; reducing gender disparity and dramatically increasing gross and net enrolment rates particularly in rural areas, while negligible attention to higher education. It is now time to advance changes in higher education so that our universities too can appear on the top universities list in Africa and world over.

However, in this paper, I focused more on promoting academic research in our higher education system and faculty members’ inability to undertake in research projects in their areas of specialization at their assigned universities. The ability of a higher education institution to stand out tall amongst many and attract both local and foreign students’ interest is its strength in empirical research, publication of scientific papers, generation and advancement of new or existing knowledge and profiles of faculties. Why is it true that construction of a durable house begins with a solid foundation, nonetheless if the wall and roofs are not properly and stringently gripped and tightened, when faced with troubling Hamilton winds or shocks in future it might catastrophically wreck or experience landslide. I use this metaphor to illustrate the worsening academic status of higher education system and services in post-conflict Liberia in terms of governance, academic dishonesty and performance of students and faculty members. This case is true of our higher education system. It has been observed overtime that most faculty members and professors teaching at university levels (both public and private institutions) don’t have PhDs and even Master’s Degrees.

Another factor undermining quality learning can be associated with cases where lecturers turn their classes over to teaching assistants (TAs) to teach while they seek employment in government or private entities. In practical terms this is conversely unique to all universities and it’s so rampant even in community colleges in the country. Academic dishonesty is prevalent and many times it goes with impunity, as a result, it adversely affects the fabrics of our higher education system which in turn decline competition, creativity and innovation. The academic reputation of our education system (particularly secondary & undergraduate levels) is rapidly declining and performance or outputs of college graduates nowadays are lousy and frustrating. A complete reform of higher education in Liberia in my view should adequately focus on fiscal and human capital investments that will enhance the capacity and quality of faculty members to begin to undertake and stimulate academic research ventures at various universities. It is frustrating to know that most faculty members and lecturers at teaching at university level don’t know how to conduct empirical research and such venture is unthinkable amongst them. In simple terms, you may ask as to how many of those professors or faculty members have published in an academic journal (whether local, regional or international journals) in the past decades or are doing so now? 

As I mentioned above, this may be due to lack of training at terminal levels in academic research fields or absence of financial support. The National Commission on Higher Education (NCHE) must be proactive through vigorous regulations and policies implementation that would bring about total transformation and advancement of research enterprises at institutions of higher education with necessary monetary and human capital support. Recruitment and retention policies for faculty members, administrators and lecturers should be stringent and straightforward that may lead our universities to become epicenters of knowledge production, construction, innovation, and publications. This new reform strategy should drive us away from the traditional form of ‘banking education’ in which teachers claim to be the only custodians of true knowledge (‘gods of academia’) and as such they just deposit same into the heads of students, rather than seeing students as partners in the production or construction of new knowledge, meanings, and ideas that may bring new understanding or insights for social, cultural and economic development. It is time that we ourselves begin to carry out differential empirically diagnosis,  assessment and write the Liberian stories and histories the Liberian ways and I believe we can only achieve such ambitious plans through human capacity building at the highest levels and to develop a community of academia within our higher education system and private think-tanks. Additionally, I think that through robust empirical differential studies, and careful diagnostic, we might become to understand factors affecting socio-economic development in the country, thereby becoming planners and architects of our own economic growth and development pathways. As such, strong collaborations have to be established between empirical research and public policy making, and national development planning, but it also requires trained faculties and research fellows including individual researchers and think-tanks.

Globally, institutions of higher education are the mitochondria of knowledge construction, knowledge marketization, innovation and scientific discoveries of real-life solutions to host of societal problems, socio-economic and technological development. Based on the quality and quantity of academic research and publications by faculty members and graduates of a university can potentially drive it towards the academic ladder of world ranking as well as become a new source of financial growth, social prestige and can attract an inflow of foreign students.

Educational Fragility and Investments in Education
The educational sector of Liberia is highly underfunded and lowly invested with only 7% of government’s annual budget allotted towards educational development, thereby painting the country as one of the least in educational spending or investment (EU, 2009; MOE, 2004). Although the 14 years of civil turbulent in Liberia damaged about 54 percent of school infrastructures, textbooks and other relevant assets for smooth school administration and students affairs, the country has experienced twelve years of unimpeded peace and economic recovery periods, yet majority of schools are still privately operated or run by religious groups (churches). The education fragility assessment (EFA_EU, 2009) of Liberia suggests that implementation of quality education is acutely challenged by (a) constraints to state financing education; (b) chronic capacity constraints and poor governance in service management and services delivery; (c) shortage of qualified teachers; (d) bribes or corruption in schools; (e) neglect of secondary and tertiary education; (f) discrimination, exclusion and gender inequality in schools; (g) large youth population with little basic foundation of education and so on.

These situations are compounded by the government’s insensibility to allot sufficient budgetary lines for educational development, reform, quality learning and infrastructure development. However, despite the government’s 7% annual budgetary allotments to the educational sector, over 49 percent of education service delivery of all schools (i.e. 58% of total enrolment) are private or religious institutions. On another hand, this government is one of the highest recipients of donor support in Africa towards improving educational services and training, hitherto the quality of education remains messy and it is incomparable even with universities in other Mano River union member countries. For instance in 2009/10 fiscal year, an estimated $45 million was given by USAID towards education compared to government’s allotment of $25 million, nonetheless quality education, school infrastructure, modern curriculum development and other facilities remain under developed and engulfed with hybrid corruption and unqualified staff (EU 2009 & MOE 2004). The portion of both government’s annual allotment and donor contributions that go to higher education institutions (and all levels of education in Liberia) are very insignificant to achieve robust transformation. The government and relevant stakeholders should at first implement rigorous measures and exercise political will to fight corruption in all sectors and thereafter increase educational investment or allotment from the current 7% GDP or annual budget to at least 30% which is above the education fragility assessment (EFA) criterion and significant proportion should be aligned toward research and publication.

Academic Research and Higher Education Institutions in Liberia
As the oldest African independent state, Liberia’s higher education system lags far behind in the global competition of knowledge production, academic research, and generation of new ideas. The government is yet to take this issue serious and invest more into quality education and to promote empirical research enterprises that on one hand strengthen and improve the performance of higher education institutions. In December 2015, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Honorable Augustine Kpehe Ngafuan in his keynote speech at the University of Liberia’s “Honor Roll” program students’ graduation ceremony threw out a number of questions to a cross section of faculty members and students as to their involvement with research projects, but I guess dishearteningly he did not receive the responses he wanted. It is disappointing and catastrophic to know that faculties and so-called professors of universities in Liberia are not involved with research projects. It is very frustrating to realize that Liberians are not at some extent participating in the study and discovery of factors affecting the development of the country as well as forecasting of achievable solutions that are local, contextualized, sustainable and measurable.

I believe faculty members and professors at our local university possess great deals of human resources to research issues affecting the growth and development of Liberia and they should utilize their skills to help put Liberian universities on par with other leading universities in Africa and the world over. Some commentators and observers tend to blame the deteriorating and messy status of our education system on the war that damaged infrastructures, destroyed textbooks and introduced corruption into the system. I tend to default with such assertion and argue that we have enjoyed twelve years of peace and economic recovery period despite the country has been attacked by a recent Ebola outbreak that dampened once again the economy and stalled major economic development projects. In the same front, enrolment rate at higher education level has soared dramatically than the pre-war era and there has been a rapid increase of both public and private universities that put out huge numbers of young college graduates annually. In the same vein, we need to assess how knowledge is filtered and passed unto these graduates to enable them to fully participate in the labour market or transition into employability. In light of the aforesaid, I suggest to mean that, how knowledge which is procured and deposited into students’ brains are gathered, filtered and transmitted to them? To the borrow the words of Paulo Freire (1970), the “banking education’- where only the teachers hold true knowledge and ideas and they in turn ‘deposit’ them into the horizons of students are killing educational advancement, innovation, creativity and technological development in Liberia. In reforming the system to promote quality academic performance, relevant state stakeholders must formulate policies and regulations that will oblige faculty members and professors at both public and private universities to engage in academic research and publications and a timeline should be enshrined in such policy in which a faculty member or professor must publish his or her research findings within two years for instance and there should be set penalty for failing to not adhere to the regulations or governance of higher education.

Moreover, the inability of faculty members or professors to engage in research projects suggests countless variables or reasons, but I will only treat two or three of these explanatory variables as I go on. On one hand, finance or budgetary support or grants from government especially for public universities for implementation of research projects is insufficient or delay most often. However, in a critical view this explanation cannot survive nowadays especially where there are countless research grants opportunities online and from many development organizations around the world. This means that a faculty member who has the zest and capacity to conduct research could develop a proposal for research grants to the government and other sources which may be accepted for funding based on the criteria of the funding agencies or foundations (e.g., Gates Foundation, Rhodes Institute). On another hand, a major reason could be that our faculties and professors might not be properly capacitated or trained on how to conduct empirical research that maybe published by world leading journals or even continental (regional) journals in Africa. Subsequently, I have observed overtime that the culture of research for reproduction and advancement of new knowledge has not been promoted by university faculties or government institutions because they have not realized the relevance of evidence-based research to the process of national policy making and development planning.  But to achieve this, I believe that relevant government authorities and institutions of higher education should institute and implement a robust policy and establish institutional frameworks and provide monetary supports to universities and/or faculties who will engage in research.

Roadmap to Higher Education Governance Reform 
The National Commission on Higher Education (NCHE) is highly inactive and not truly proactive in driving vigorous and sustainable transformation of our higher education system. The higher education commission should not operate as a ‘rubber-stamp’ organ of government that only provide accreditation to upcoming/emerging universities in the country, rather it should begin formulating policies and regulations that would ensure quality higher education and compel faculty members, professors and lecturers at institutions of higher education to become actively conducting academic research and publications that bring solutions to real-life-situations facing the country and even improve the very higher education system. There should be set criteria and institutional support mechanisms through provision of research grants that would encourage faculty members to engage in empirical research and provide trainings to college students to enable them too, to engage in academic research and generation of new knowledge. The NCHE’s policies and regulations should be expanded to encompass recruitment and retainment policies of professors, or faculties and come up with clear qualification requirements of those who may apply to teach in universities. And if a professor does not publish in an academic journal (whether local, regional, or international) within two years, he/she portfolio should be reduced to an assistant professor with reduction in salaries and other amenities. Budgetary projections of universities should reflect research grants for each college, department and professor to encourage them undertake research projects. Additionally, professors and/or faculty members of university should be appointed based on their specialization, academic publications in his/her fields or research interests’ and considering professional work experience. The NCHE should also work with universities around the country to establish academic journals (either online or in print) to enable university faculties and individual think-tanks to publish their research findings for public consumption.  
Establishing Research centers and Studentship programs at Higher education institutions
Transformation of higher education institutions and services must be holistic and ensure that university and faculty members establish research centers or think-tanks within those institutions or departments of the university. Conducting research is costly and time consuming, therefore, administrators of universities (vice presidents for academic affairs, provost, etc.), the NCHE and other relevant state authorities, should establish a platform where a research fellow or faculty would apply for a research grant and through review of such research proposal, it may be accepted or rejected. This commission on research grants and ensuing processes of getting such grants would promote competition, professionalism and quality in the type of research proposal and findings. There should be periodic evaluation of faculty members’ academic performance and participation in empirical studies bi-annually or annually especially those at graduate schools and certain departments at undergraduate levels. By doing this, we can be sure that our higher education system is getting back on track with other universities in Africa and we can improve the academic performance and wellbeing of college students and promote the culture of scholarship.

About the author: Mr. Goteh is currently a MA Candidate of International Development and Public Policy, Beijing Normal University in China. Before moving to China in pursuit of studies, he worked with the UN system in Liberia on humanitarian and human rights projects, international refugee protection, gender and development. The author also has extensive experience in judicial reform programming and worked with the James A. A. Pierre Judicial Institute at the Temple of Justice as Training Supervisor.

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