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Free Education and National Development

Free Education and National Development

His Excellency, Rtd. Brigadier, Julius Maada Bio’s policy statement on education is quite bold, ambitious, and, on the surface, laudable. However, one must state a caveat that free education does not necessarily translate to good or quality education. Furthermore, free education does not always guarantee national development.

The role of every country’s educational system should be to transform its economy, ensure national and political development, and improve the quality of life of its citizens. Anything short of this is a waste of time and resources. Before we continue any further with this topic, let us pose certain important questions that will enhance our understanding of what we are talking about here.

What does President Bio mean by free education? Does it just mean free tuition, or does it include uniforms, books, bags, pens, and other school supplies? Does it mean free education only at primary level, or does it include high school, colleges, and university? How is this policy formulation supposed to affect private schools and private universities? Does it only refer to public schools and universities? What is the purpose of this free education? Is it just to increase the literacy (that is the ability to read and write) level among students? Is this policy formulation intended to translate to national development? What are the financial implications of such a policy on government’s budget?

While President Bio’s policy statement is not clear, let us assume that his intention is to reinforce the centrality of education in national development, and his rational is that if we put education first, then all other aspects of society will be positively affected. If this assumption here is correct, then President Bio’s task is certainly huge, but not impossible if he is willing to put money where his mouth is. Such policy formulations must be backed by budgetary allocations.

It is not enough to waive tuition for every student in Sierra Leone or provide them with all school supplies and imagine that will give them access to good education when the educational system in the country has huge problems. It is not enough to grant free education to all when it has not been ensured that such a policy move will translate to national development.

I believe that President Bio has competent advisers and policy experts to direct this policy to success, but as someone who also believes in the primacy of education in national development, I feel compelled to give my own views on this matter. And I am going to avoid theoretical standpoints on this topic to make my message as accessible as possible to the common man.

Before we go any further in our exploration of the relationship between free education and national development, let us make certain paradigms clear. Let’s make a distinction between education and knowledge. And readers, please be patient with me because such a distinction is necessary to understand what we are talking about.

Simply put, education is “the process of receiving or giving systematic instruction, especially at a school or university.” Webster’s Dictionary defines it as “the knowledge, skill, and understanding you get from attending a school, college, or university.” Knowledge, conversely, refers to “facts, information, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject.” While education refers to the giving and receiving of instructions, knowledge is the outcome of that process. Thus, let us say that one of the purposes of education is knowledge production. Before we talk about how knowledge is produced and how such knowledges translate to national development, let me make it abundantly clear that education does not only happen in schools, colleges, and universities.

The concept of knowledge does not only refer to the ideas or conclusions that we draw from the instructions we receive from our professors, or our understanding of subject matter. It also refers to the material realizations and dimensions of our understandings. In other words, knowledge can, and should, always be translated into material things. Thus, the materiality of knowledge would include the production of machines and technology, books, essays, medicines, fertilizers, technocrats and civil servants, farm crops, etc. If all of the material things we see in our society are traceable to knowledge production, then it is logical to conclude that education is central to national development. There is no way a builder can build a house if he/she does not have the knowledge or education about house building. And in focusing on the link between education and national development, we must not only stop with schools, colleges, and universities, but all national institutions that produce knowledge (and I will show how we must do that shortly).Certainly, without a robust and vibrant educational system, Sierra Leone’s developmental growth will be stunted, amoral, lopsided, and counterproductive.

However, the production of knowledge, which happens mostly in schools, colleges and universities, needs an enabling atmosphere that encourages and even fosters its production. Any system of education that does not produce knowledge, either ideationally or materially, is a failure to mankind. So how do we make sure that President Bio’s free education policy supports national development?

First of all, knowledge production is research intensive. This would involve a lot of money to support the research process and the technology that aids research. The process of research mostly involves traveling, buying or loaning books from the library, photocopying important documents, browsing the internet for information, interviewing people, etc. Certainly, such undertakings would involve a lot of finance and the availability of electricity and office hardware like computers, scanners, printers, and the internet to brows the World Wide Web. Sierra Leone must be ready to provide all of these things as the bases of research. Each school, college, and university must be equipped with all of these things and curricula redesigned to encourage various kinds of research that produce knowledge. With the optic fiber cable now in Sierra Leone, it is possible to have internet connectivity nation-wide.

Also, the government and the Ministry of Education can direct the effort of research towards certain fields of study that need urgent attention. For example, money can be set aside for research into the design and manufacture of a local machine that harvests rice. In the United States of America, Britain, Canada, and Australia, the robust research culture of universities is used for the discovery and production of medicinal drugs, cancer treatment, knowledge about scientific methods of farming, etc. With very few exceptions like Professor Maturi who researched and produced Benimix and Professor Monte Jones who discovered the genetic process of producing the new rice of Africa (NERICA), the University of Sierra Leone has not been supported enough to realize its research potentials.

Njala University was founded as a research university to support agriculture in Sierra Leone. How far have we used all of those brilliant professors at Njala University to produce knowledge that will turn Sierra Leone into a self-sufficient country in rice production, our staple food? It is common knowledge that Sierra Leone is spending well over $M100 (One Hundred Million Dollars) quarterly to import rice. Why not use some of that money to support research that will produce cheaper but better quality of rice? Fourah Bay College also has departments like mechanical engineering and electrical engineering, yet Sierra Leone still gives contracts to foreign companies to construct roads and provide electricity for this country. Supporting research in these departments should produce knowledge on how we can make use of local materials or a combination of foreign and local materials to generate electricity and make roads that will cost us less. But readers, my concern is not so much about the exorbitant prices we pay to generate electricity and construct roads in our country; it is about how relying on ourselves for knowledge production creates a culture of research for national development.

However, like I mentioned above, research should not just stop with schools, colleges and universities. Every other modern institution in Sierra Leone should be involved in research. Ministries, government departments, and agencies should all do research. For instance, the Ministry of Agriculture in collaboration with Njala University should engage in research to produce knowledge that will improve agriculture in Sierra Leone and enhance food security in this country. The Ministry of Health should do the same with COMAS. In the West, military hardware, medicinal drugs, and other kinds of machines are produced by the military. Thus, the military and the police of Sierra Leone should engage in research to produce knowledge to develop our country.

A research-driven society is always complemented by a printing culture. Apart from digital publishing, the government of Sierra Leone should support and encourage private printing presses and modernize the Government Printing Press. The quality of knowledge produced in any country is first tested in the process of publication: submission of manuscript, peer-reviewing, editing, and publishing. The gatekeepers of knowledge—professors, disciplinary experts, journal editors—will always make sure that the best knowledge is published. When knowledge becomes public through publication, it opens itself up to scrutiny, resistance, or corroboration, and it provides a foundation for the production of further knowledge. Thus, any research-driven society should be publishing books on medicine, agriculture, science, technology, literature, chemistry, physics, etc. that are related to our culture and society. When I was young, I knew that the pawpaw tree produces some liquid that could remove stains from clothes. A research on the chemical component of that liquid could lead into the establishment of the first detergent company in Sierra Leone. And the codification of such knowledge in a book can lead to the discovery of other such plants in Sierra Leone. Readers, this is how it works in America and Britain to make them great nations. In addition to the publication of books, the government should open bookshops in all the district headquarters in Sierra Leone and encourage international bookshops to open in Sierra Leone. It is a shame that we do not have a bookshop in this country

Another point is that research and the production of knowledge should be highly rewarded. This will serve as an incentive to researchers. The government of Sierra Leone does not necessarily have to do the rewarding (sometimes it should when it needs such knowledge in particular cases), it should just create the enabling environment for the sale of knowledge. Knowledge is intellectual property, and people who labor to research and produce it should be paid for it. Such payment can either be in the form of research funds to carry out the research, sale of books written by authors, or sale of goods produced from such knowledges. Moreover, teachers, lecturers, and professors, should be paid adequate salaries to enable them to conduct research without having to worry about other necessities of life. To pay a professor with a PhD far less than the Commissioner of NRA with a first degree or Masters is an act of valuing the work of the Commissioner far more than the professor’s. This can serve as a disincentive to research and it undermines the value/role of education and knowledge in the development of the nation. This is why professors want to be politicians because even members of parliament with high school leaving certificates do earn more than a professor with a PhD at Fourah Bay College and Njala University. For goodness’ sake, President Bio, reverse this trend if your policy on education is serious. The drive towards free education is useless if the culmination of one’s education is devalued and degraded. Learn from former President J. J. Rawlings’ policy of paying lecturers well in Ghana to revamp education in that country.

My next point has to do with how this education policy will reflect government’s commitment to improving the current dilapidated structure of schools, colleges, and universities. Free education does not make sense if educational facilities are not up to date. Educational institutions should be clean and well kept, equipped with libraries, science laboratories, good toilets, computer labs, overhead projectors connected to a computer to visualize learning, well ventilated classrooms or electric fans, etc. Every school, college, and university should have a website that displays important information that can be accessible to parents and the public. This might look like I am asking too much for schools in an ailing economy like Sierra Leone’s. But with a well-managed economy, these facilities can be achieved over a period of time. Any educational system that is not modernized to reflect contemporary and global trends is useless. And readers do not make the mistake of thinking my views are too Western. Schools in Ghana, The Gambia, Nigeria, and South Africa have websites, internet, overhead projectors, computer labs, science labs, electricity, etc.

Furthermore, the curricula of schools, colleges, and universities should be revised to reflect national needs and global trends. This is necessary because we do not only train our students for local needs but for international graduate education too. Our educational system in Sierra Leone is too classroom-based, fixated on talk and chalk. Everything we do in our classrooms must be linked to real life experience. Our curricula in schools, colleges, and universities must be designed to reinforce the link between theory and practice. Our educational system should establish a link between knowledge production and technological development. The disconnection between our education and technological production is illustrated by the fact that we mostly lack the skills and technology to transform our natural and mineral resources to finished products. We have not been able to do what Karl Marx refers to as producing the means of producing our finished products. In other words, there is a missing link in our educational emphasis to bridge the gap between raw materials and finished products. I do not know why, with all our rich deposit of iron ore, we do not have a foundry in Sierra Leone to smelt iron? I do not know why Sierra Leone is exporting iron ore and not the finished products of metal? I do not know why, up till now, the University of Sierra Leone has not designed courses that teach students how to mine, smelt, cast, and mold iron ore into different shapes, sizes, and sheets?

This missing link between our raw materials and finished products can be reestablished by developing and supporting middle man-power education in Sierra Leone. I suggest that the government of Sierra Leone opens four research centers: Board Research Center; Metal and Machine Research Center; Fabric & Textile Research Center; and Water & Oil Research Center. These research centers should research, teach, and produce knowledge about everything that has to do with boards (carpentry, roofing, boat making, cabin houses, etc); metals and machines (iron smelting, casting, molding, spare parts design and production, assembling machines, generating electricity, etc); Fabric and Textile (planting cotton, traditional loom machine and the production of fabric, gara tie and dye, tailoring, etc); Water and Oil (water sources and management, wells, dams, fishing, drilling oil, converting crude oil to fuel, etc). These research centers must collaborate with each other in their research and findings and work with MDAs that are stake holders of all of their knowledge production. Readers, the emphasis on middle man-power education will give a second chance to school drop-outs, reduce the number of idle youths in the street, and direct our education to our cultural and national needs. It will also reduce joblessness in the country and diversify our economy for exponential growth. But, moreover, Sierra Leone will become a producing, not just a consuming country.

Melvin Kamara’s Fomel Industry and National Industrialization Center (FINIC) has set the pace in Sierra Leone in the design and production of agro-industrial processing machines. The government of Sierra Leone should support and emulate the good work of FINIC. With FINIC in Sierra Leone, I see a great future for rural agri-business and a gradual transition from subsistence to commercial farming.

Readers, I want to end this essay by providing a visual illustration of the centrality of education in national development. I have adequately demonstrated throughout this essay that my conceptualization of education is not limited to schools, colleges, and universities but to every sector of our society as well. The modern state is founded on research and productivity. Thus, a very robust, rich, diverse, and contemporary educational system is the foundation for economic growth and national development. The diagram below shows how the collaborative networking among an agriculturist, engineer, and businessman can contribute to national development. At the foundation of the knowledge possessed by these three people is education. In order to produce more and better crops, the agriculturist works with the engineer to produce a machine to help him/her achieve that. When the machine is manufactured and tons of crops are harvested, the businessman negotiates with both the agriculturist and the engineer to sell both crops and machines.

In this way, the economy is diversified with agricultural productivity, machine production, and buying and selling of both crops and machines. The government, in turn, will collect income tax from the agriculturist, the engineer, and sales tax from the sale of crops and machines and use such monies for other development projects. So, in order for government to get money from its citizens, it has to create opportunities for its citizens to make money. When you have different activities going on like growing crops, manufacturing machines, and selling finished products, the nation develops. But it all starts with EDUCATION!

Samuel A. S. Kamara (PhD), Illinois State University, USA

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