Surge in school-leavers leads to sifting entrance exams

After years of war that disrupted society, including education in Sierra Leone, what should have been a success story has turned into a nightmare for the authorities as they grapple with what to do with the huge numbers of senior high school-leavers who have qualified for university admission.

The surge in prospective candidates for university admission is a result of the government’s 2018 Free Quality School Education (FQSE) programme that was implemented in an attempt to open up access to education at the basic and senior high school levels.

This has now started putting pressure on university admissions and, for this year, the universities have decided to conduct entrance examinations for prospective candidates as part of a “screening exercise”, to pick the best, Musu Gorvie, the deputy chief technical and higher education officer of the ministry of technical and higher education, told University World News.

David Sengeh, the minister of basic and senior secondary education, confirmed that about 106,000 school-leavers have qualified for admission to year one at universities but there are only 15,000 first-year places (and 65,000 places from years one to three).

The surge in the number of students who have qualified for admission under the government’s FQSE, has seen enrolment in senior high schools jump from 313,000 in 2018 to 528,148 last year.

Sengeh said the current situation was the result of a lack of investment in the education sector. In addition, the war in 1991 caused schools to be closed for a year, adding that, “I would rather have 80 students in a crowded classroom to access education than have 40 in a spacious classroom with the other 40 under bridges or somewhere.”

Gorvie said: “It has been overwhelming and challenging. But we have been working to see how to manage the surge. The institutions, therefore, introduced screening through entrance examinations.

Concern about ‘sifting’ process

Mohammed Sessay, a 19-year-old who has just left senior high school, said: “I am aware of the entrance examinations that have been planned for the universities to select candidates for admission and it scares me. I have prepared myself, but I know that it is not going to be easy.”

Sessay said it was not something he and his classmates were expecting, and it has come as a big surprise.

“I know that, in the past, once you made the grades, you stood to be admitted. Unfortunately, the huge number of people who came out of school this year has created problems for us.”

The institutions were to reopen on 1 October, but results came out late and so they have been given more time to go through the admission process.

Gorvie said that, in order to open up access to tertiary education, the Tertiary Education Commission is considering virtual universities as well as community colleges.

In addition, there are also plans to open technical and vocational education and training (TVET) institutions in every district.

Already, two technical universities have been created out of two existing polytechnics, all in an effort to create opportunities for the high number of students coming out of the senior high schools.

“The situation we find ourselves in is sudden, but we are using the support provided by the Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa.

She said the ministry is also re-engineering higher education to solve the problems it is facing, adding that, “about 500 lecturers will be recruited over a three-year period in order to provide lecturers to the institutions”.

Infrastructure need

Brima Bah, the deputy vice-chancellor of the premier university Fourah Bay College (FBC), said his institution is facing challenges with the exponential increase in the number of students applying for admission. “There is currently inadequate physical infrastructure and equipment to cope with the numbers,” he added.

He said FBC is trying to improve its curriculum to let it meet the demands of society as well as training graduates who will meet the demands of the job market.

“As the numbers of students for admission increase, we are also becoming aware of graduate unemployment and, so, we are taking steps to ensure that those who pass through our walls are properly trained.

“In the past, some employers used to call to complain about our graduates, but we took note of that and changed how we trained them, and it is gratifying to note that we now get employers commending us for the graduates we have trained,” Bah said.