Radical reform needed to improve university system – Study

The challenges facing the higher education sector in the West African nation of Liberia could be mitigated and properly managed by adopting educational policies and curricula that will serve the needs of the labour market coupled with the unwavering political will to enforce and implement the relevant laws and policies intended to improve the operation of the higher education sector.

This was the main message that emerged from a study titled ‘Challenges of higher education in Liberia and possible solutions’ published in the Journal of Asian and African Social Science and Humanities on 30 March 2023.

Speaking to University World News, the study’s author, Dr Mory Sumaworo, who is the executive director of the African Institute for Development Research, said: “Liberia is facing several challenges, including preparing the productive human capital to run its abundant natural resources that have been either mismanaged or left discarded without anticipated development dividends.

“This is because of the existing setbacks in Liberia’s higher education system driven by social, financial, academic, political and security factors,” he pointed out.

“As a result, national and multinational companies in Liberia suffer from a shortage of qualified workforces. Thus, there is a need to introduce sound education reform policies for preparing comprehensive and market-driven curricula, encourage private sector involvement in tertiary education, allocate sufficient budget funds for universities and establish strong international academic cooperation, along with the proper implementation of higher education policies,” Sumaworo explained.

Challenges facing the HE system

“Liberia’s higher education system is confronted with multiple challenges, including poor governance and leadership, a lack of sufficient funding, a scarcity of faculty members, a lack of academic research and innovation centres, poor academic infrastructure, poor performance of high school students and centralisation of higher education,” Sumaworo noted.

For example, most of the decision-making top managers at higher education institutions have been there for years. As a result, they prefer running those institutions in the way they were managed several decades ago.

Also, most professors at Liberian universities have multiple assignments and jobs at different institutions to meet their financial needs, so their commitment to their universities may be compromised. A shortage of faculty members, along with crowded classes, hampers the effective and efficient dissemination of information and proper transmission of lectures to the students.

Furthermore, there is no journal on information systems and informatics in the republic, and lecturers are not actively publishing because of difficulties in carrying out academic research – such as a lack of laboratories, according to Sumaworo.

Other challenges are the lack of competent academics in all specialisations but, more specifically, in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) areas of study, as well as the “recent exposure of fake academic credentials at almost every university in the country”, he pointed out.

“Due to the weak health system, health crises such as COVID-19 are challenges that hamper the proper functionality of higher education.”

“Monrovianisation” of university studies – because almost 90% of modern universities and colleges with necessary facilities are based in Monrovia, the capital city of Liberia, also causes a serious problem. It leads to congestion and overcrowded lecture halls, making the study environment unfriendly, with the result that students’ and lecturers’ outputs can be seriously affected, Sumaworo added.

Liberia is the oldest republic in Africa, established in 1847, but could not provide a single PhD programme in any discipline.

Roadmap for reforming HE system

Sumaworo added that implementing the following possible solutions could form the basis of a roadmap for reforming and transforming the Liberian higher education system:

• Capacity-building for lecturers at universities to pursue their masters and PhDs at accredited high-profile universities;

• Designing study plans and curricula that align with the job market to encourage faculty members to undertake scientific research and innovation for solving some of the problems the country faces in different fields;

• Encouraging effective partnerships between the public and private sectors to provide quality tertiary education;

• Strengthening academic cooperation between Liberian institutes and their counterparts across the world to further standardise the level of tertiary education. For example, universities could host highly qualified foreign lecturers in different disciplines – especially in science and technology – to assist their Liberian peers in producing market-demanded graduates and development-driven scholars as well as conduct joint research projects; and

• Establishing public and private libraries and laboratories for practical training for pre-university students.

This could reverse the current trend for many students to prefer art disciplines to STEM specialisations, despite the urgent need for science graduates to help achieve the nation’s development programmes.

“To make these proposed solutions a success in reforming the higher education system, we need the strong political will to enforce the laws and policies intended to improve the operation of the higher education sector, along with enforcing transparency to adequately use the funds provided,” Sumaworo said.