Issues in Transforming the University of Liberia

By: Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D.

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
January 4, 2015



The Problem: The nation’s premier public higher education institution is challenged to provide more educational value, increase in quality degree attainment rates, and serve more students, while operating with less public funding matching the enormous need. This article outlines and addresses some critical issues encountered by the University of Liberia (UL) as it works to serve a broad array of stakeholders. Clearly, a new business model to increase efficiencies is required to better target academic investments and enhance student success.

The quality of education at UL has eroded because of very little focus on instruction and learning and more on politicization of academic life by students and the faculty association. Administrators also argue that the university is not an autonomous entity as it should be, but rather influenced greatly by agents of provocation within the larger society. They note further that the Board of Trustee is not concerned with facilitating matters affecting the university relations with outside bodies; which would leave governance of the institution to the administrators. The salary and financial remuneration for faculty and administrators is considered so low and does not meet the rising cost of living in the society. Staff development and teaching/research support for faculty reportedly ranges from minuscule to nonexistent. Some observers add that there is no real plan or set rules for teacher evaluation or improving teaching and learning effectiveness. There is a marked mismatch in terms of field of specialization of graduates and the absorption capacity of the labor market. With regard to employment, those who oversee the planning at UL are handicapped in their assessment of the actual labor market needs for skills required in the various sectors of the economy.

Central to the UL challenges is that it lacks adequate funding. Student tuition and fees are not enough to sustain the university financially and so is the case with the budgetary support that the university receives. Attempts to increase tuition are made futile by political interference. Equally, the university leadership has demonstrated poor philanthropic fundraising. Without a viable plan and strategy to resolve the fundraising problem, administrators are in a much weaker position to seek autonomy. Decisive action on these four essential fronts: lopsided focus on teaching and learning; improvements in staff development, evaluation and quality assurance; building robust fundraising and university relations capacity outside of sole dependence on government budgetary allocation; and moderating the excessive political influence of outsiders, hence, allowing for administrative autonomy – are the only ways that the university can thrive.  

More so, UL must have two basic functions: transform Liberian society to a commercial agricultural and a knowledge-based economy. While UL represents hope for young college-age Liberians whose parents cannot afford tuition at domestic and/or foreign universities, the enormity of the task facing the institution cannot be overstated. The larger the intake of students, the more deficient the quality of education at the institution becomes, especially since the facilities are poor and not being enhanced. Clearly decades of neglect and politicization of UL are incompatible with the ambition to transition the country to a middle income nationin 2030. As it stands now, UL does not compare well with even its local counterparts, least to say regionally and internationally. A more detailed discussion of the issues affecting UL follow coupled with possible strategies for its transformation.

Underinvestment and Politicized Culture: Government spending on higher education has shown a mark of underinvestment in what is considered one of the weakest sectors of the society. No plans designed to propel the country into a modern state can be achieved, if UL remains battled by such an underinvestment. No plans to transform Liberian society can achieve their intended goals, if UL remains the paralyzed politicized entity it has become. The university has to be purged of its politicized culture and brought into an era of “enlightened moderation” with a focus on academic excellence and learning. It has to be the place where new generations of academics are trained rather than a hub of political mischief. Simply, Liberia’s survival in this globally-connected world requires a national environment where institutions of higher learning are catalysts for the development of a workforce that can meet or exceed industry demands. This is especially critical for a nation like Liberia emerging from protracted conflict, which caused enormous brain drain and waned institutional capacity considerably. It is even more crucial given the high inflation, unemployment, and other poor economic indicators, which are the sources of frustration among Liberian youth, sometimes serious enough to radicalize young people into violent action or even militancy
Institutional Enrollment Capacity: At present, the number of students enrolled in UL exceeds the institution’s capacity. Although the numbers of private universities have increased, the attractiveness of UL to most low income students has also not changed. After the quality of the entrance examination at UL was improved, it resulted into large-scale failure, depicting that applicants did not meet the minimal threshold for being admitted to the institution. Typically, in well-functioning universities, an individual student’s trajectory is created with the guidance and support of an academic advisor. Unfortunately, at UL, academic advisory services are scarce, even lacking in some instances. Those seeking admission to the university themselves have also most likely not benefitted from guidance counseling in secondary school prior to admissions.

Curriculum-Workforce Requirement Mismatch: The curriculum content of UL, and perhaps its private counterpart does not respond quickly to changes with the labor market workforce skill requirements. Indeed, new state standards or curriculum contents should be drawn up with the aim of regulating learning outcomes so that they meet market requirements. Only then will graduates become competitive within the labor market. Employers have little or no role in higher education at present, especially with respect to curriculum development. Unless this state of affairs is changed, and employers are actively involved in curriculum development alongside internships for prospective graduates, the job prospects for graduates will remain abysmal. Employers will remain skeptical regarding the quality of credentials that the institution presents. 

Faculty Qualifications and Publications: When one examines UL on the basis of teacher qualifications, experience, publications, and participation in international conferences, teaching and learning, and research, the results are appallingly low. Without precise statistics, it is fair to say that not quite half of UL faculty holds doctorate degrees. If this is the case, at the top of the institution’s change agenda has to be faculty quality improvement and relevance. The UL leadership, including the Board and academic leadership team must establish and implement stringent quality criteria developed against international standards to assess performance on both program and institutional levels. For its part, the Higher Education Commission should ensure 3 basic goals are accomplished: quality assurance through accreditation, faculty development, and the relevance of instruction to national social and economic development priorities through the promotion of excellence in learning and research, while increasing access to diverse higher education programs and opportunities.

Quality Assurance: A Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) should be evolved under the auspices of the Higher Education Commission, but include academics, both domestic and foreign, with the mandate to enforce standards in higher education, while fostering continuous improvement by developing higher education benchmarks and quality criteria. In each college within UL, a Quality Enhancement Council (QEC) should be established that is headed by the Assistant Dean, but directly responsible to the Vice President for Academic Affairs. The QEC should focus on faculty development and the promotion of learning and research within each college. The QEC should ensure that faculty members are better qualified and exposed to professional development and research support opportunities at Masters and Doctoral levels. Increased scholarships for international and domestic graduate programs, for both students and under-qualified lecturers and support for post-doctoral fellowships will be important. Linked to these initiatives should be financial incentives such as a new tenure-track system, increased competitive research grants and significantly increased academic salaries.

Improving Faculty Stock: While efforts are made to improve the domestic stock of researchers and teachers, efforts will have to also been made to repatriate Liberian academics working and living abroad. In addition, for the near term, a Foreign Faculty Hiring Program should be established, designed to attract foreign and expatriate faculty members to UL as was done during the 1980s. Under the Foreign Faculty Hiring Program, the government should set out to recruit suitably qualified professors from abroad with attractive offers including handsome research grants and salaries...

Research and Development Capacity: At UL there is insufficient development of research capacity among faculty members. Scientific skills are really sparse amongst Liberian scholars in general, UL faculty being no exception. Recognizing that the creation of new knowledge through research is the key to driving innovation, and one of the primary responsibilities of an institution of higher education, the university will have to establish at least one Central Research Laboratory in the country. The research center must be created to drive “world-class” research and be supported with major investments in information technology, such as the creation of a large Digital Library, which will provide faculty members with access to thousands of scholarly publications. This means investment in a grant writing activity at the university to attract non-governmental or philanthropic resources to the institution.

Building a Higher Education Career Pipeline: That the nation’s universities are critically understaffed is not in dispute. This is testified by the incestuous exchange of faculty between the different higher education providers, and the haste and poor level of planning that goes into lesson preparation. Government must encourage talented Liberians to pursue academic careers, and this too can occur, if faculty salaries are increased coupled with a tenure track system where faculty salaries can even exceed that of Cabinet Ministers. This will increase an interest in academia as opposed to the Executive and Legislative branches of government.

Community Colleges – the Necessary Caveat: Rapid population growth has led to heavy economic demands on the national budget, and therefore increasing access and participation in higher education will continue to be a priority for the predictable future. Therefore, the ambitious community college program launched in recent years to increase the number of public higher education placements available has resulted in university enrollment increases. However, one remains doubtful of the quality of faculty and learning in these institutions. To cater to increased enrollments, not only should faculty standards be targeted, but physical infrastructure should also become a priority. There continues to be worries that many of the newly created community colleges lack basic infrastructure and qualified faculty. If one has to transform UL, there has to be a period during which new enrollments will have to be slowed for a certain duration and incoming students veered to Tubman University, which has become an exemplar of public university development in Liberia, and the community colleges, while UL cleanses itself of the cultural and structural rots that have rendered the institution nearly incapable of achieving its mission. These new community colleges must also not be allowed to compromise standards in infrastructure and in faculty appointments and promotions.

Recommendations: 1)Need exists to improve education quality at all levels particularly to lay proper foundation for advanced studies in science, engineering, agriculture, and those other areas that are most closely aligned with the social and economic development and recovery of the Liberian economy. 2) A fundamental shift needs to occur in the ways that primary and secondary education is offered as noted in a previous article. Primary and secondary education programming need radical improvements to produce more competitive students for higher education. Perhaps, need exists for a student readiness index as youth seek to transition from primary school to the university. 3) UL should diversify its course offerings including formal and non-formal (continuous education programming) to fit a broad spectrum of knowledge seekers in society. 4) New enrollments at UL should be streamlined and admission standards ramped up reasonably to weed out the mediocrity as a norm that has caused the quality of education to be bogged down by politics and unproductive non-academic student activities. 5) There is a great question about attracting and retaining qualified faculty, administrators, staff, suitably equipping the library (ies), fully developing plants and laboratories. Resources for improving these vital areas are too meager. Therefore, any addition to the current pool of public higher education institutions will add no value but detract from improving UL. These will be only ill-equipped institutions with no specialty or individuality of purpose.

Conclusion: UL must be responsive to the challenges of a rapidly changing and challenging new nation, where citizens’ expectations of society are growing, and there is a rising population of poorer students. If there is a new beginning in higher education in Liberia, it must start with building a better stock of competitive pre-school, kindergarten, elementary, primary, and secondary school students. Finally, need exists to fully implement the comprehensive strategy for modernizing the higher education sector that was developed a few years ago in Washington, DC and validated in Liberia. This policy, if implemented, will remove contradictions in the system. But the fact remains that the nation has an ineffective quality assurance system for its higher education. The public is unaware of the monitoring instruments and processes used by the Higher Education Commission. Moreover, it is hard to tell if the Higher Education Commission is ensuring compliance with its quality assurance standards. This is made obvious by the low quality of staff and material resources at higher education institutions broadly and UL, in particular. Low standards in the recruitment of academic staff still remain the norm.

The Author: Emmanuel Dolo is the President/CEO of the Center for Liberia’s Future, an independent think tank based in Duazon, Liberia.

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