President declares year of science and technology

In an effort to transform the Gambia into an economic success story, the West African country’s President Yahya Jammeh has declared 2012 to be the year of science, technology and innovation. The initiative is to be led by key ministries in partnership with the University of the Gambia.

Jammeh made the declaration in a speech on 19 January, as he took office for a fourth five-year term.

The initiative is similar to Egypt designating 2007-16 as a decade of science and technology, and the decision by African science ministers to designate 2007 as a year for science, technology and innovation in Africa as well as 2011-20 as the “decade for science in Africa”.

“These declarations aim to keep science and technology at the forefront of the country's or the continent's political agenda as well as putting higher education at the heart of national and regional strategic plans for development,” Dr Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid, a researcher at Cairo's National Research Centre in Egypt, told University World News.

Jammeh pointed out that education, training, science, technology and innovation are crucial to the achievement of the year of science, which is premised on the country’s Vision 2020 blueprint.

Vision 2020 focuses on the transformation of the Gambia into a middle-income country by the end of the first quarter of the next century through developing social sectors, including education, that are key to human capital development.

The country is also concentrating on promoting agriculture, which is currently the dominant activity in the Gambian economy, through enhancing research and development within the framework of a national agricultural policy.

Jammeh said: “As we require digital communities capable of contributing to a knowledge-based economy and society, science and technology will dictate our pace of development.”

“The education system will be made more responsive to these challenges and will design forward-looking programmes that anticipate challenges and produce quality scholars, graduates and leaders that are critical enough to search for and proffer solutions,” said the president.

In the Gambia, over 50% of the population reach primary education at best, 26% reach upper basic education and 18% reach senior secondary or higher education, according to a 2011 World Bank report titled Youth Employment and Skills Development in The Gambia.

Equity, quality, relevance to the needs of the economy and inefficient management are serious problems facing higher education, as pointed out in another report, A Situational Analysis of Education in The Gambia.

To address such problems, Jammeh has promised that the year of science, technology and innovation will be led by a national committee comprising the University of the Gambia (UTG) and the ministries of higher education, basic and secondary education, finance and economic development, information and communication technology, and energy, under the chairmanship of the higher education minister, with the vice-chancellor of UTG as vice chairman.

Higher education is mostly provided by the University of the Gambia, a hybrid of North American, European and African universities that was created in 1999. It comprises four faculties and Gambia College, and has schools of agriculture, science, education, nursing and midwifery, and public health.

Pa Tamba Ngom, a researcher in the nutrition programme of the country’s Medical Research Council, welcomed the president’s declaration of 2012 as the year of science, technology and innovation.

“This will provide a political boost to enhance the focus on the already-started reforms in higher education for development, which in addition to the launching of more new initiatives will encourage the achievement of a true knowledge-based Gambian society,” Ngom told University World News.

“Implementing the roadmap policy document for the next decade 2012-21, validated in September 2011, now has even greater potential to succeed,” Ngom said.

The year of science, technology and innovation should enhance the implementation of higher education projects and initiatives that are already underway.

These include the development of a higher education observatory and a quality assurance framework, and the submission of a tertiary education act to cabinet for approval. The focus of the act includes improving access and relevance, avoiding duplication of programmes, and increasing efficiency, effectiveness and sustainability in the delivery of higher education.

Recent suggestions for strengthening the higher education system have included government increasing its funding of UTG, the university’s educational facilities being improved, exploring ways of raising money to meet its financial obligations, institutionalisation of a research culture, capacity-building and community outreach programmes.