There may be no freshmen at the University of Liberia this academic year, after all 25,000 students who took the university entrance examination failed the test. One university official is quoted on BBC as saying, “The students lacked enthusiasm and did not have a basic grasp of English” (English is the official language of the country). However, the root of the problem lies in the overall appalling Liberian educational system. Unless major actions are undertaken to overhaul the entire educational system, universities will have only unqualified students to admit. And even if those students do reach colleges, the universities in Liberia need major improvements to reach world average.
Liberia may be recovering from a civil war, but that only explains the limited number of educational institutions in the country, not the quality of the available institutions. The recent failure of all students to achieve a passing grade on the university entrance examination is a sign that available schools are not providing the quality preparation needed for college enrollment. In fact, Liberia is notorious for students at both secondary and tertiary levels paying for grades with money or sex. The so-called “sex 101” or transactional sex, which refers to the practice of lecturers having sex with female students for good grades, is one of the only ways many students make it through the educational system.
Even though President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has acknowledged that the Liberian educational system is a mess, she has done little to provide the quality education children in Liberia deserve. My Aunt Fatu, who lives in Lofa County, foresaw this educational disaster a couple of years ago when she sent her two sons to her brother in Sierra Leone to finish their high-school education. The two boys have done remarkably well in the Sierra Leonean school system, which rather unfortunately is not so far ahead of the Liberian system. In fact, just a year ago the Sierra Leonean school system implemented one additional year of school in response to the high rate of failures on the West African Senior School Certificate Examination, a university entrance exam. Instead of three years of senior secondary school, Sierra Leonean children now spend four years — a remedy I don’t believe solves the problem of poor-quality schools.
In an attempt to address the current educational disaster in Liberia, the University of Liberia has now promised to admit 1,800 of the students who failed the test after talks with President Sirleaf. Instead of solving the problems of lack of resources and poor quality teachers, the government has opted for a band-aid solution that leaves foundational problems with the educational system untouched. If indeed the university set a higher standard for admission this year as President Sirleaf claims it has, it should have stayed that way and those students who failed the entrance exam should have repeated. Admitting unqualified students to college only transmits the problem from one institution to another.
In her own memoir, This Child Will Be Great, President Sirleaf wrote that “as we strive for national reconstruction and renewal, education of all the children of Liberia, especially the neglected girl children, must occupy a place second to none in our national priorities.” President Sirleaf is also a leading member of the post Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) Committee, a 26-member committee responsible for creating a development vision to succeed the MDGs. However, the present state of education in Liberia goes to show that Sirleaf has yet to heed her own advice when it comes to prioritizing education. Liberia and all other African countries have to realize that their commitments to continental development will remain futile if they to fail to invest in quality education as a priority second to none.