The legacy to drive the search for middle-income prosperity: Challenges for the University of Sierra Leone
Statement to the University of Sierra Leone Workshop on revitalizing the University. Freetown, Sierra Leone 2014
Mr. Chairman, distinguished participants; let me start by complimenting the organisers for this initiative. At the Sierra Leone Conference on Development and Transformation, the unanimous view from all walks of life is that Education should be the top priority in our programmes and plans for the transformation from poverty to prosperity. The initiative of the current meeting by the Vice Chancellor and his team to revitalize the University of Sierra Leone is overdue given the importance of higher education for our transformation process. My special admiration goes to the organisers for not waiting on Government, but rather taking the bull by the horns to fashion a process for rebuilding the University to play its pre-eminent role in the development of the country.
After independence, and as a relatively new nation, we did not have much to boast of about past glories. I recall for example that there was talk of changing the name to Songhai, as part of the trend at that time – Dahomey became Benin, Gold Coast became Ghana, and part of French West Africa became Mali etc. New countries were digging for a past that would unify and be the foundation on which the future can rely. Sierra Leone historians were not unanimous about the reach of the Songhai Empire and there were also strong views about retaining the name of Sierra Leone. The stories of past glories of Salone learnt as a child centred on Bai Bureh the warrior who fought against the British, and Fourah Bay College being the Athens of West Africa.
Well today am going to talk about what everyone knew then and still know now – The Athens of West Africa – although as time passes the true meaning gets blurred. Something to do with Education, or Fourah Bay College, or was it the Grammar School, the first secondary school?
It was indeed Fourah bay College that had earned the reputation and the description of Athens of West Africa. That the FBC was the mecca for Anglophone Africa combined with the presence of the high quality secondary schools meant a cadre of western educated Africans went as administrators to the Cameroons, Ghana, Gambia and other British territories, and even some parts of East Africa. This created the impression that we were a nation of highly educated and sophisticated people. Indeed the quality of our journalists, the fame of our scholars, the calibres of our lawyers, the intellectual discourse of our politicians etc. provided proof enough.
Athens of ancient Greece was the source of knowledge and wisdom. Plato, Aristotle, the Arts, Philosophy, the schools all attracted the best talents to Athens. That it is considered as the cradle of civilization and democracy, are explained by the virtual pilgrimage of the philosophers, artists, poets etc. to that ancient city as the crowning points in their careers.
Fourah Bay College gave this country that international legacy. Our brothers Africans returned to their countries after their sojourn here as erudite and respected scholars. Sierra Leoneans went as disciplined and experienced administrators. The admiration for the mother ship was complete. That is a legacy we should not let go so easily.
What will it take, for the University now, to use that legacy and transform it into a vision for the future and the driving force for the changes required? And is it doable in the current context?
It is doable I met a distinguished American academic recently who is passionate about the revitalization of African institutions of higher education and this is what she said;
“The fact that I taught at Makerere the year it celebrated its 75th anniversary enabled me to realize that a legacy of excellence, if properly harnessed, can be worth more than all of the donor dollars and technical assistants that might come your way.”
Makerere, at one time the leading University in East Africa was ranked 54th university in Africa in 2007, last year it was ranked 10th in Africa.
Our Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone is ranked 526 today in sub Saharan Africa; and in the world, we are 20,086.
Before some begin to challenge the rankings, let me state that it is not just a coincidence that of the top ten universities in Africa, 8 are from South Africa, and that South Africa is currently the most advanced economy in sub Saharan Africa. In short there is a correlation between the quality of a country’s institutions of higher learning and the general level of development of the country – at least for countries in the lower rungs of the development ladder. And by the way, as a nation, rather than spend time questioning the rankings, or lamenting that journalists are not patriotic, let us focus on the messages that these rankings convey and spend more time on improving our position. KAPU SENSE NOH KAPU WOD.
The role of a modern Athens of West Africa – like Athens of old – is to be the mecca for knowledge, the place for culture – old and new; the object of admiration for being a modern democratic state – where the rule of law prevails, and where the separation of powers ensures full accountability; and above all where opportunities are fairly distributed to all citizens so that each can improve his/her station in life through hard work and improving one’s talents. At the forefront of all these should be a reputable institution of higher learning.
Mr. Chairman Ladies and Gentlemen, like Athens of old, all the above is possible if our institutions of higher learning take the lead by example and if they educate our young to compete in this our knowledge–led world.
Thus the revitalization of the University is not merely a desire by former students anxious to return the college to past good days. It is a necessity for the realization of the vision we have for the future Sierra Leone. A prosperous Sierra Leone is inconceivable without the institutions of higher learning assuming the leadership role in bringing back the culture of acquiring, using, and respecting knowledge, to the centre stage of our development activities. The other new institutions will play their part, but the University’s history and potential connections make it eminently suitable to lead the rest. We must envisage a kind of renaissance that will unleash forces to propel the University to its former glories as appropriate for the 21st century.
What form then will it take – this renaissance?
This renaissance should be a mass movement within and outside Sierra Leone that taps into all sources of support and whose aim is to revitalize the University to resume its leadership role in the knowledge space for the country’s development. This is the objective I hope you have, and that the Funding you seek is only one component of the overall package. The renaissance must engulf all, from faculty to administration.
To begin with, we must come from this conference with a dedicated core group of volunteers ready to make the sacrifices of time and intellectual resources for the revitalization exercise that should be an outcome of this meeting; A Friends of Fourah bay/USL core group – ten members. These would be the champions of the renaissance and will promote the message of transformation.
Next, we need a Strategic Plan for the 10 years of policy reforms aimed not only at the University as an institution, but at the staff and management to be imbued with a new vision that will alter their performance and approach to their work. The plan can be subdivided into Action Plans of three years each. Such a plan should cover areas such as financial sustainability, leadership and staff development, physical facilities, and connectivity in the widest possible sense including library networks. The plan should cover community outreach, student affairs, and lastly policy research and academic programmes.
A word on policy research. The University should be at the forefront of empirical research to support government policies. Very little is done so far and the country relies almost exclusively on consultancy reports. The academic freedom that allows the university to take on society’s ills is an essential part of the checks and balances for socio-political stability. When fear of political recrimination or lethargy silences this, we all silently witness the march to prosperity altering its course. This must change.
Similarly, lecturers must fulfill their obligations to students through fairness, attendance at classes, quality lectures and outstanding work ethics. Mobilising resources requires not only for the cause to be just, but also for the advocates to be persuasive by example.
Returning to how we move forward, we should aim at getting a first draft of the Strategic plan within three months, to be followed by extensive consultations before adoption.
A separate but urgent exercise is the massive mobilization of support from the alumni. This will be time-consuming and a staff member may have to be assigned this task for at least two weeks. The purpose will be to create a groundswell of support by former students who enjoyed and benefitted from the institution in its heydays; appealing for all to rally around and join the renaissance of the University. Although the ultimate aim is to mobilise resources, initially the objectives could be: to sensitise, create awareness and interest in the programmes to be developed out of the Strategic plan.
And here is where the legacy can be used to drive the future vision. There are still many of us around who experienced the privilege of a learning environment that challenged the best in ourselves. And we are forever grateful. We just need to be stimulated to give back in a structured framework with clearly set targets and goals.
Finally, it is important that current students play a part in the renaissance to be launched.
Let me end as I started with compliments to the Vice Chancellor, staff and senate for an initiative of such national importance and urgency. I wish all of us success in restoring the past glories of Fourah Bay / USL so that once again it will earn and merit the description of the Athens of West Africa.