Prioritizing Education: Why Should We Care?

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Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei

From May 21 to May 23, 2018, the Ministry of Education and other stakeholders in the education sector will meet at a summit to talk about issues in education in Liberia. The summit will be held under the theme of “Prioritizing Education: Why Should We Care?” I have deliberately chosen this theme as the title of this piece for several reasons, not least because I want to contribute to the question of why we should actually care as a participant in the this week’s summit. There are indeed deluge of reasons why we should care, and at the centre of all is the survival of our cultures, our languages, our civilization, and above all our peace and stability. It cannot also be gainsaid that the overall survival of our country is hinged on the level of education we attain. There is sufficient evidence from across the world that level of education has a causal relationships to economic growth, social advancement and democratic development.

The primary proxy for measuring levels of education in a society is the basic literacy rate – the percentage of people who are able to read and write. A recent report by the Liberia Institute for Statistics and Geo-Information Services (LISGIS) suggests that the literacy rate has reached an impressive 64.7% compared to the 42% reported 10 years ago by UNESCO.  The disaggregated data indicate that 54% of women are literate compared to a whopping 77% of men pointing to a conspicuously huge disparity in access to education between men and women.  But not much is spoken of functional/skilled literacy which has to do with the availability of skilled labor for the rapidly changing and dynamic domestic and global labor markets. Are Liberians at home having access to training opportunities in the fields of new technology, or strategic areas that the domestic labor market requires to thrive? The numbers that come close to answering this question are unflattering. A 2014 report by the Governance Commission indicated that from 2009 to 2013 eighty percent (80%) of all graduates from higher education institutions majored in business (56%) and the social sciences (24%). In the highly technical areas, the number of graduates were a negligible 1% for engineering and 4% for agriculture during the four-year period studied.

The numbers from the secondary school level – mainly scores – are even more appalling. The year 2013 was an alarming year in the education sector: nearly one-third of candidates who wrote the senior high school certificate exams administered by the West African Examination Council (WAEC) failed; not surprisingly, 25, 000 students who wrote the entrance examination for admission to the University of Liberia failed to achieve the minimum grade for admission. In her reaction to the appalling developments, then President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf described the educational system as ‘a mess’, vowing to fix the problem by completely overhauling the entire system.

The most notable overhaul then involved cleaning the education payroll of ‘ghost teachers’, changing the leadership at the Ministry of Education, deploying more teachers to rural areas, and distributing more text books and teaching materials, among others. Mr. George Werner, the Minister of Education appointed in 2015 to reform the system, developed a strategy romantically entitled ‘From Mess to Best’. Werner’s reform measures were strongly criticized as unsustainable and unrealistic by traditional stakeholders in the sector. With Sirleaf’s unflinching support Werner rolled out his plans which included a controversial privatization program.

But after all of the showboating by the new Minister, the 2016 and 2017 WAEC results pointed to the fact that the system was still wanting of critical and substantive reforms: nearly half of all candidates who wrote the exam failed in 2016 while 2017 recorded a failing rate of 41%. Not much has been done since and public spending for education during the last five years of the Sirleaf administration was an average 16% of the national budget.

In an apparent admission of failure to reform the sector, Sirleaf’s ‘reform’ Minister wrote on social media that “education does not promote equality and shared prosperity. Education alone is not enough to make anyone a “good” leader.” While this statement was made in the heat of a political campaign, it however pointed to the mediocrity and half-heartedness with which the Sirleaf administration approached the question of education in Liberia. To Sirleaf credit, enrolment increased heavily during her administration; but in the end, Sirleaf met the system worse than she met it if learning outcomes measured by WAEC scores is anything to go by.

The above reasons are why we should not only care about education, but actually prioritize education service delivery as a critical function of the state. Prioritizing education means reforming the system to respond adequately to contemporary labor market demands and acceptable international standards. This would require direct policy interventions such as increased financing and rigorous accountability mechanisms in the education sector if we are to improve on learning outcomes, student scores, and develop the next generation of leaders for our country. Recent actions by the government in the area of education financing are sadly not too encouraging. A recent analysis of the 2018-2019 National Budget by a local think tank, the Center for Policy Action and Research (CePAR), suggests that there has been no progressive and fundamental departure from the Sirleaf’s model of education financing which kept the sector underperforming year after year.  

In addition to the issue of poor financing is the current governance arrangement which to a large extent contribute to the inefficiency of the system. The arthritic bureaucracy at the Ministry of Education contributes highly to the poor state of monitoring, supervision, and logistical support to educational institutions across the country. The system is heavily centralized despite the promulgation of an education sector decentralization plan in 2011 which provided for the creation of an education board in each county. The need to fully implement the school board program remains as urgent as it was when the policy was adopted seven years ago.

As I wrote elsewhere in 2013, Liberia needs fully established and institutionalized local boards to function as relevant and credible local authorities on education sector governance. Decentralizing local decision-making, implementation authorities and resources will enable local education boards to implement national education policies and to have sufficient control over such things as licensing of teachers, school supervision and monitoring, school feeding and subsidies to schools. Under such arrangement the central Ministry will retain responsibilities in regulating and promulgating national policies on education, while the local boards lead in implementation.

The current government was elected campaign of ‘change’ including providing affordable and quality education to every Liberian.  Considering President Weah’s continued emphasis on alleviating the sufferings of Liberia’s poor through pro-poor service delivery initiatives, education must be considered a national emergency given the system’s current deplorable state. As a national emergency, all needed support would be required for reviving and sustaining the system so that it produces competent and functionally literate citizens.  Thus, as a first start for this administration, there is a need to reconsider the current proposal for education financing in the forthcoming budget year when the government will actually begin implementing its own budget. More financing to the education sector is needed to provide for more support to services in the sector beyond just servicing the payroll.

Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei is Chairman of the Liberia Education and Training Foundation (LITEF). The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

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