Monday, March 30, 2015

We support the students' demands; Basic and Secondary Education Minister should be dismissed

Sidi Sanneh 
For a very long time, the regime of Yaya Jammeh has ignored the real problems facing the University of the Gambia that are vital to the institution's viability and relevance.  The regime preferred instead to focus its attention on what appears to be an assembly line approach to graduating as many students as the young institution can handle with little regard for quality as suggested by the current grading system.

While we agree that the system needs calibration to bring it up to, and in line with international standards, as claimed by the out-going Vice Chancellor, putting a new one into effect immediately and across the board will cause confusion in interpreting students' grade.  Grandfathering all students currently enrolled  to the old grading system and applying the new system to future intakes makes more sense at little or no financial cost.   This is the easy part.

The challenge facing the government is delivering on its promises to students i.e. reducing tuition costs or (a more realistic short-term goal) holding them down which means maintaining a level of subvention or subsidy, if you will.

A quick look at the Program for Accelerated Growth and Employment 2012 - 2015 (PAGE) policy document does not seem to substantiate students' claim that it has as a target the reduction in tuition. The document does admit, however, the heavy burden of household budget on education.  For example, in 2010, Gambian families spent over $ 700 million or 2.5% of GDP of household income on education; a figure higher that 18 African countries that maintain similar data.

Because the majority of students are from poor family background, some level of subsidy is morally justified. The question becomes - for how long? The simple answer is - not for long especially if the economy continues to be mismanaged and corruption remains rampant from the top to bottom. Affordability becomes then a real issue.

We have said in the past that the current rate of student intake is unsustainable which has contributed to current problems the students themselves are facing that range from poor library resources, recruitment and retention of qualified faculty to student transport to ferry them from campus to campus.

The regime has used the university as a propaganda tool for long at the expense of addressing the less sexy but equally important expenditure items that is not readily visible.  Even the 'brick and mortar' projects, like educational infrastructure that carries high propaganda value because of its visibility is 86% externally funded.  One wouldn't know this simply by listening to Yaya Jammeh disparage the British colonialists, the American imperialists and European Union's aid that amounts to nothing but "chicken change" in exchange for the freedom and sovereignty of Gambia.

Jammeh frequently assures students that it would be "over his dead body" that he'll use Western aid only to be subjugated to them.  He will never kowtow to Britain, U.S. and the EU, never.  Yet almost 90% of all educational infrastructure stock was built using external donor funds; funds that do come with conditions attached.

The problems facing the students are real and must be addressed.  These include, but certainly not limited to, the following: tuition costs, the grading system, educational/teaching/learning resources including library facilities, student transport to bus them to and from classes and between campuses, student intake; the list goes on.

All of the above have been recognized and acknowledged in PAGE as issues that the government must address between 2012 and 2015 if quality of education is to improve and the mismatch between output at UTG and the requirements of the economy resolved.  We are in 2015 and the problems have increased instead of being mitigated signalling failure of the regime to address issues that it identified in its own policy document but failed to implement accordingly.

Government cannot successfully address these problems while increasing student intakes and reducing recurrent expenditure to tertiary education which is exactly what Jammeh has been doing for nearly a decade, and thus the failure to meet the basic minimum of student expectations.

Quality is an issue of great concern across the education sector.  One of the biggest contributors to the quality issue and the most ineffectual cabinet ministers is the current Minister of Basic and Secondary Education.  Apart from maintaining her services for a decade, 29% of grade 5 students score the minimum grade in English and 22% in Math at the National Assessment Test.  At the senior secondary school level, the students continue to perform poorly with only 7% scored a pass mark in Math and 13% in English.  The Minister of Basic and Secondary Education has, for a decade, overseen the precipitous decline in educational standards and she still maintains her post. She should also be fired.

Now is the time to start addressing the pressing issues facing the students by first shifting resources from the Office of the President to the Ministries of Education and Agriculture.   In 2014, 10% of the entire budget of the government went to the President's Office - a figure hard to justify when Education's share was approximately 13% and Agriculture was less than the 10% goal set by the African Union's Maputo Declaration for Member States and to which Jammeh signed off on.