EDUCATION-LIBERIA: University Plans for the Future

Remi Oyo

MONROVIA, Dec 4 1997 (IPS) - Starting from scratch, a top administrator at the University of Liberia in Monrovia admits, will not be easy, but there are a wealth of ideas on the table to restore academic excellence at the public institution of higher learning.

Although the university “did not really close for seven years” during the civil strife which began in 1989, no degrees were awarded until the end of hostilities between the warring factions in 1996, said Al-Hassan Conteh, the Vice President (Academic Affairs).

According to Conteh, the government has granted the university some 266,000 U.S. Dollars to cover some of the expenses for the expected 6000 students who are now enrolling. But Conteh is quick to point out that “we need assistance in everything”.

“Priority will be in the area of staff development, and infrastructural development. If you walk around this campus, you will see for yourself that substantial damage has been done here,” said Conteh, who received his doctorate in demography in the United States.

Conteh told IPS in his sparsely furnished office here, that most of the current staff of 261 are junior faculty members, “because there was a substantial brain drain during the war”.

The Vice President estimated that the University of Liberia lost about 60 percent of its academic staff due to the exodus of people during the war. “It is really a big problem for us, so what we are doing now is to revamp our institutional development. Many of the lecturers will need re-training.”

The University also wants to source funds to strengthen its department of sciences — physics, chemistry and biology — and programmes in information technology, and communications. “As you know, as we move towards the 21st century, in order for any African country to compete, that nation must be able to have a competitive edge. We are so far lagging behind,” Conteh said.

Short courses in mass communications and journalism, Conteh said, also have been identified as a priority to help improve the professional quality of Liberian newspapers.

“I am sure you have seen some of our newspapers, many of them leave much to be desired. But we hope to make an impact by bringing journalists here on campus and training them,” Conteh said.

There are at least six daily newspapers in Liberia, with the market leader being the ‘Patriot’, which is part of the Liberian Communications Network owned by President Charles Taylor.

The state-funded University of Liberia is the only option for many of the country’s students, who cannot afford the high cost of private tertiary schooling.

Some private schools are said to charge as much as 250 U.S. Dollars per academic session in a country where the average monthly salary for the majority is about seven U.S. Dollars.

According to 1995 estimates, the total enrolment of school-age children(primary and secondary) in Liberia was estimated at only 25 percent. Besides the University of Liberia, other higher education institutes include the Cuttington University College, run by the Protestant Episcopal Church, a college of technology and a computer science institute.

“Young people in Liberia want to go back to school after the war, but some have a lot of problems. A lot of the schools are damaged, there are no jobs and many people are traumatised,” said Helen Rue, a student at the privately-owned Institute of Technology.

Rue, who pays the equivalent of about 62.50 U.S. Dollars a semester at the institute, works as a waitress earning 45 U.S. dollars a month. “It’s too expensive, but I don’t have a choice…I need to go to school to improve my education,” said Rue who is studying for a diploma in management and computer studies.

“Education is the key to Liberia’s long term development,” said John Sumo, the assistant education officer for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

The United Nations Scientific, Education and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) estimated in 1995 that 61.7 percent of Liberia’s adult population — 46.1 percent males; 77.6 percent females — were illiterate.

UNICEF and other international donors are supporting the rehabilitation of the nation’s school system. UNICEF, for example, is conducting refresher courses for primary school teachers and high school principals, while the European Union is funding the rehabilitation of 36 primary schools in three counties.

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