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Emerging Voices: Glencorse on Higher Education in Liberia

by Guest Blogger for Isobel Coleman
August 20, 2012

The Liberian capital, Monrovia, October 2011 (Luc Gnago/Courtesy Reuters). The Liberian capital, Monrovia, October 2011 (Luc Gnago/Courtesy Reuters).

Emerging Voices features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is from Blair Glencorse, Founder and Executive Director of the Accountability Lab. He analyzes the challenges of integrity and accountability in Liberia’s colleges and universities, arguing that failures in higher education threaten the country’s progress toward peace and development. You can follow Glencorse on his blog and on Twitter at @blairglencorse.

Under the leadership of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia and its international partners have focused on several governance priorities to bolster economic development and prevent a repeat of the brutal conflict of the past. Their reforms have included rooting out rampant corruption within the public sector, opening up government, streamlining business rules to attract investment, and consolidating management of natural resources. Indeed, Liberia was the first African state to comply with EITI rules governing extractive industries and the first West African country to pass a Freedom of Information Act to support more transparent government.

Among these issues, Liberia’s higher education sector may not seem a priority. But chronic accountability problems in colleges and universities are putting the sustainability of Liberia’s transition under threat. The country’s human capacity is very low; it ranks 182nd out of 187 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index and literacy is less than 60 percent. It is difficult to manage a state and society without effective institutions of higher education that can generate basic administrative and management knowledge over time.

Accountable universities are also important because Liberia has significant natural resources—a key driver of conflict in the past—that must be managed effectively and equitably. Beyond huge agricultural potential and large deposits of iron ore, rubber, gold, diamonds, and timber, significant amounts of oil were recently found off Liberia’s coast.

Governance of the extractive sector is already weak, as documented in detail by a recent Global Witness report. There were nearly 3,000 engineering students across the country this year, but just 30 were able to pass the necessary exams to graduate. This is hardly a sign that the necessary capacity is being developed to manage the country’s resources. A failure of higher educational institutions raises the likelihood that Liberia’s wealth will turn into a curse instead of a blessing.

It is also essential that current students—the next generation of leaders—understand the importance of accountable structures and behaviors, which they can then build upon and replicate at the national level. Earlier this summer, one university closed for three weeks after violent campus protests by students and a brawl with the administration when fees were increased without warning. Meanwhile, the country’s largest public institution of higher education, the University of Liberia, was racked by fierce riots between supporters of opposing political parties after student elections. Colleges and universities should be forums to learn about effective decision-making and responsible participation. Too often, though, they are not.

The endemic integrity challenges of the higher education system manifest themselves both at the top—in Liberia’s government—and at the bottom—in colleges and universities and among individuals within them. The Ministry of Education has not yet developed a strategy for the future of universities and colleges, while the body tasked with oversight—the National Commission on Higher Education—largely cannot effectively accredit institutions, set clear regulations, or enforce standards. Universities and colleges themselves rarely have strategic plans and are unable to follow regular reporting regimes.

Patronage and bribery by administrators, professors, and students are widely reported. Abuse of resources, teacher absenteeism, and sex for grades appear common, although data is minimal and there has been almost no systematic research into these problems. This structure endures because the corrupt dynamics have become entrenched and a “culture of silence” prevents reporting of problems and hence any constructive reform. When combined with a lack of resources, limited technology, and poor teaching quality, this produces woeful outcomes from Liberian higher education. Employers complain that some students graduate without even being able to write their names. The system, rather than generating knowledge and building integrity, actually teaches corruption and undermines capacity.

The Accountability Lab, an organization I founded recently to find new answers to problems of accountability in the developing world, is working with universities and civil society stakeholders to develop innovative solutions to these challenges. Over the past four months in Liberia, we have conducted preliminary research and discussions with a wide range of individuals—from government officials to students. This work has established that a new approach is needed to strengthen rules, understand problems, set benchmarks, and ensure credible punishments for illegitimate behaviors.

An approach of this type will have to be carefully integrated within wider reform efforts, and will take decades, not years. In the short term, clear rules and benchmarks could improve monitoring and generate more ethical behavior. This effort might include helping university administrations enforce codes of conduct for students and professors, and putting in place honors councils to encourage honesty and achievement among students.

To overcome the “culture of silence,” universities also need trusted and anonymous tools for reporting problems, supported by reformers within university administrations who are willing to address them. This would allow leaders to enforce rules based on evidence, firing professors who engage in corruption, for example.

Fortunately, higher education is garnering greater attention. Public university professors are receiving higher salaries, and a new education law provides for student loans. Liberia’s government is working with the World Bank and USAID to develop a strategy for higher education and provide trained professors.

Moreover, some administrators, professors, and students understand the need for reform and want to change the status quo. Liberia’s international partners and friends should work to support and encourage these reformers in order to build a higher education system that can prepare Liberians to successfully rebuild and develop their country.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Yah Parwon

    The first and foremost step for Liberia’s Educational system is to move a step above saying “Education is our first and foremost priority and actually prioritize education starting with SMART plans to halt bribery and improve the quality of education. Our educational system is at the level where teachers tell kindergarten students to pay five liberian dollars to see if they made a pass and earned gold stars on their papers, right at that age the younger population is learning ABCs along with systematic dishonesty.
    The article greatly shows the key disadvantages that educational sector face and some ways forward to tackle this problem which are very effective..one captivating way forward viewed in the article is the issue of establishing code of conducts for students which usually seems like a “way to go process”. This process was practicalized at the college I graduated from, a great number of students studying the same course were expelled from the school for one whole semester because cheating was discovered and no one was willing to point fingers. This process actually set an example for other students ..this example shows that once there is a system of control there could be a possibility of change.

  • Posted by Joseph Johnson

    I strongly agree with Yah for her contribution to this topic. To add, I suppose it would also be a first-rate idea for the Government of Liberia through the Ministry of Education to initiate the codification method for every student within the boundaries of Liberia. How does this work? Every student entering school for the first time is assigned an ID/Index Number that is used for the rest of his/her educational pursuit.
    With the initiation of this method, students seeking transfer from one institution to another will be properly tracked along with their academic and behavioral records. In this case—transfer of students from one institution to the other is going to be done through the institutions that are concern without the student’s involvement. I am strongly of the conviction that this will avoid students skipping classes when they have not successfully met the requirements of that class. This is practiced in some of our neighboring countries and is working very fine.

  • Posted by Blair Glencorse

    Dear Yah and Joseph- many thanks for the useful comments. I agree that putting control systems in place to ensure “good behaviors”, matched with adequate monitoring systems, is an important part of the solution. I think these systems need to apply equally to professors and administrators as much as students, however- as each of these parties face challenges and must also be part of the solutions.

  • Posted by Stefan Siewert

    Liberia is a poster child for a post-conflict sub-saharan country of the Bottom Billion, where the majority of the population lives on subsistence and is donor-dependent. Furthermore, Liberia holds the world record in attracting foreign investment for its natural ressources, exceeding 10 times and more current GDP. The result is an extremely strong skills demand shock with no institutional capacity to deal with it. Thus, there are very powerful and consistent economic trends, contributing to fragility and market (and state) failure.
    The Accountability Lab is a much-needed initiative. The question is about symtoms and reasons. The question is about magnitude, how the system might be nudged in order to enter a more sustainable equilibrium, how to channel foreign investment in capacity and skills development.
    It is unclear from the given information whether the Lab is addressing the structural imbalances or it is rather an initiative which only temporarily contributes to problem solving.
    In order to understand the dimension of the problem: A 10% return on foreign direct investment, reinvested in the infrastructure and education, would double GDP and make the country independent from donors. This challenge is outstanding.

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