President shifts focus to HE amid massive demand for places

Sierra Leone has provided West Africans with tertiary education from its famous Fourah Bay College (FBC) since 1827. It was set up by the Christian Missionary Society of the Anglican Church and, over the years, students from the region travelled to Sierra Leone to be educated at the college, one of several quality institutions.

Unfortunately, as a result of the economic downturn and war, FBC and all other tertiary institutions in the country have suffered badly.

Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Bio, who took office in 2018, has introduced free tuition for primary and secondary school children, which was an election promise. He spoke to University World News about what he is doing to rebuild the tertiary education sector.

UWN: Sierra Leone used to be called the Athens of West Africa because of the high quality tertiary education on offer. You are laying the foundation for the primary and senior high school system. What are your plans for the tertiary sector?

JMB: It is true that we were once the ‘Athens of West Africa’ because of the quality of education that we provided at various institutions. This is the home of one of the first Western-type higher education institutions [FBC], established in 1827. But, it crumbled, too, when the state collapsed in the early 1990s. We are trying to pick up the pieces to come back and regain lost glories. It is a revolution … that is why laying the foundation is the most important starting point.

UWN: What have you achieved so far?

JMB: We have started to feel the pinch of what we have done at the basic and senior secondary level, at the tertiary level. This year, 97,000 students have qualified for university, and we can absorb only 11,000 to 15,000. So, we have to find a way to get them [those without places] into higher education.

UWN: Do you see a way out?

JMB: We have put our thinking caps [on] as a nation, and I have tasked the ministries and everybody to come up with plans. In addition to education and everything else we are doing, we are bullish on technology.

With the use of technology, we will be able to give tuition to a lot of our people through the use of a backbone of fibre-optic cables to connect the university campuses away from here [the capital, Freetown]. Virtual campuses are the way to go.

In addition, we have established technical and vocational institutions in every district to take care of educating graduates who will be ready for the job market. There are only about three or four that we have yet to complete due to the resource [constraints] and circumstances we find ourselves in.

UWN: As you are solving educational problems by expanding access to tertiary education, for instance, don’t you foresee a graduate unemployment situation as more people are going to universities?

JMB: That is the trajectory we are on. There are going to be more educated people, so we are fighting on several fronts in the economy.

In the education sector, what we are doing is to create entrepreneurs from our graduates so that they don’t come out looking for jobs, but create jobs for themselves and many others.

We are also expanding our natural resources sector to generate jobs. We have changed a lot of things to make the country a favourable direct foreign investment destination.

So, as we are busy with education, we are also busy with opening up the economy, so that employment could be created. We are involved in a gamut of things; we have just prioritised education.

UWN: Why is education important to you?

JMB: I come from a very humble background and education has played a critical role in my journey to reach this level of leadership. I come from a place that is over 200 miles [more than 300km] from here [Freetown]. It is a village and it had one school at that time. I started school without slippers and had to walk barefoot.

I didn’t have access to reading materials. Today, I am here [as the president]. I can, therefore, see the enormous change in my life. The benefit [of education] is so huge that I can share it with the rest of my country.

Every child in Sierra Leone should be able to acquire a quality education, but I believe that there are a lot of them dropping out.

They are not only losing out, their parents and community are losing out, and the country is losing. We cannot develop as a nation without improving the human resources of our country. No one will come to develop our country for us.

When you are set to do a job you must be prepared yourself with the means to do the job first. It will be lip service to development to say we want to develop without education. It must be our preoccupation to say we want to develop by educating our people so that they can be part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

So, for me, I see it as an existential thing. It is not even about politics. It is how we survive and become part of the 4IR.

I have convinced everybody who works with me that we must take it seriously. I want to put Sierra Leone in pole position as far as the next generation is concerned, so that we will be part of the 4IR which we all know is a data-driven world. That is why I don’t talk about just education, I talk about fit-for-purpose education.

How do we make sure that the sort of education we give our kids actually prepares them, not for today, but for tomorrow, so it is a whole lot of things we are grappling with – and against the backdrop of COVID-19 and the disruption of the supply chain and the war in Ukraine.

But, because it is important for me, we are creating partnerships with everybody who can help us move this nation or prepare the nation.

UWN: You are spending a lot of money on education. What do you have to spend less money on to be able to pursue your dream?

JMB: We have had to pinch from all sectors … When you identify a problem as existential, you should make sacrifices to take resources from elsewhere, and concentrate on that and [how] it forms a very solid foundation for going forward.

An educated population is healthy, has food security, creates resilience, and will be fit for purpose as a country to withstand the many shocks that are happening around the world. I don’t think we are out of the woods yet.

Even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) tells us things are going to be extremely difficult for next year. I believe that an educated population will form part of the resilience to think critically and will be able to solve the basic problems of any society. Without that, we will be going through serious problems.

UWN: The country is entering an election year. You have pumped 22% of your budget into education. Are you worried that the five years you have spent is not enough to bring about the desired changes?

JMB: I think we have to tell our story accurately for people to understand [what we have achieved]. It is definitely a risk for a politician [if you do not bring about envisaged changes] but, for now, much as I am a politician, I am also a development person [who is concerned about matters other] than just winning votes at every election.

I know that it will be lip service to our development if we do not make education a priority. Even in the midst of many problems, we have done extremely well and anecdotal results are beginning to show.

I chose human capital as my flagship policy this year [2022] and, this year, when the United Nations hosted its Transforming Education Summit, I was chosen to be one of the co-chairs. That means a lot to me because it showed that our efforts are being recognised.

I am also part of the Sustainable Development Goal 4 (quality education) High-Level Steering Committee because of the efforts we have made in the past four years alone.

The kids are beginning to pass their examinations in huge numbers. Quality has improved and they are passing their mathematics and English which they struggled to achieve in the past. It is for this reason that we have a problem with higher institution [places] and how to cope with that. They are beginning to tell the story that I thought I will only be able to tell in 10 years.

In all this, because of our policy of radical change to make sure that girls are not left behind, we have made women a part of this. I have been vindicated in the past couple of years. This year, the school kids who led at the highest level for passes were girls. So, I have a story to tell.

Don’t forget about the huge sacrifices we have made. The 22% [education spent] is actually 2% of our economy that, indirectly, I am putting into the pockets of parents who have their kids in school, which is a way of redistributing wealth and so they have disposable income to spend on other things.

In as much as we are paying attention to education, food security, too, has started increasing through a policy shift in the investment into agriculture and we have seen a quantum leap in the production of our staple.

When you look at all the challenges that we have faced – war, Ebola, corruption and the rest – we are trying to change the narratives.

When you consider the empowerment of women, we have achieved a lot in that area. Gender inequality, or empowerment, is an area where we have implemented serious reforms. [Women] are becoming bolder, and they are taking their space.

We have opened the political space. The death penalty and the sedition libel law which were hanging over those who practised journalism for years, and were used to clamp down on divergent views, have all been expunged.

If you look at the educational sector alone, you wouldn’t know we are doing so much. In fact, we are laying the foundation for Sierra Leone to be part of the community of nations again.

UWN: Are you facing pressure to cut down on how much is being pumped into education?

JMB: Prices of food are going up, like everywhere in the world. What we have smartly done as a compassionate government is to make provisions that essential commodities are available.

Compared to neighbouring countries, we have done well. I am not building a mansion anywhere. I am still using these old offices. Whatever I spend is on the children. I have not bought a jet and have decided to share the wealth with the nation.

UWN: Are you into education as a vote winner?

JMB: It could be a vote winner, but I am also looking at it as laying the foundation so that this vicious cycle of poverty could come to an end. It can be a difficult vote winner, but I am more attentive to laying the foundation.

I know I am not going to rebuild Sierra Leone in the few years that I have, but I want to lay a solid foundation so that every other well-meaning leader who succeeds me will be able to build on what has been started.

UWN: Have you been able to get foreign investment to support your efforts?

JMB: We are getting a lot of direct foreign investment. COVID-19 for two years had posed a problem, but if it were not for the structures we put up to fight Ebola, we would have run into problems.

But it has been an extremely difficult situation. We have been able to navigate through what was thrown at us with limited resources. At the time we took over, most of the donors had left.

The IMF was here and we quickly established credibility with them, and they gave us a clean bill of health, after which others joined in. Now we have the Global Partnership for Education and other international partners who are putting their money here.