Education: ‘The sky is the limit’
Monday, July 21, 2008
The advent of the AFPRC, and then its progeny, the APRC, opened up astronomical development avenues with education capturing quite a share of attention.
The idea, as has been emphasized from the beginning, is built on the premise that the root cause of the country’s stagnant growth cannot be detached from the conceptualized educational system our people had been exposed to since the colonial era.
To the new government of President Yahya Jammeh, a ‘responsive, relevant and quality education for all Gambians’ was a cornerstone for the development trend the ‘new Gambia’ was desperately yearning for. And this it immediately set itself to achieving, cognizant of the price it was going to pay; both in terms of effort and physical resource.
Without any known natural resource base capable of attracting capital, The Gambia, under the leadership of a devoutly determined young soldier forged its way to where we are today. How he did it can barely be explained; but it evidently took tremendous courage and stamina.
It is all based on what we can describe today as the APRC education plan, which did not only employ an all inclusive strategy, but was particularly sensitive to the needs of all children, catering especially for the girl child, women, the physically challenged, the youth as well as the poor. The plan encompassed all categories - from early childhood education to university.
The idea of ‘education for all’ has already been pronounced, but first, the accessibility of schools was the focus. A number of new schools soon cropped up, right across the country. Inhabitants of the most remote areas of the country were given their fair share of the national cake. For the first time, parents were freed of the burden of having to travel kilometers in search of wardens for their children, a problem that had hitherto forced hundreds if not thousands of children to stay out of the classroom. Within a very short period of time, there seemed to be more schools than children of school going age. But more was set to come.
A means of convincing parents, whose apathy towards western education had been aided by their constraint with regards to affordability, was soon to be on the offing. This would coincide with the government’s expanded vision of basic education for all, which guarantees that every Gambian between the ages of 7 and 16 must have a 9-year uninterrupted basic education. This eventually recorded great improvement in URR, CRR, LRR, and NBR, regions that had traditionally registered low level of participation in Western education.
The education master plan of the APRC government was by no means limited to the basic and secondary level. Vocational and technical education and training, as well as tertiary and university education, were top on the agenda.
Due to the enormity of the successes registered so far in the sector, one can hardly have enough time to convey a detailed report. But if there is any thing that we must single out, it is the progress made on the aspect of enrollment of girls. This is seen as a landmark given the repercussions gender disparity had had on all sectors of our development agenda, which was clearly owing to neglect of the female folks.
The overall success story is largely attributable to a mixed bag of actions; policy development; capacity building; service delivery; advocacy and social mobilization, community empowerment, as well as partnership and alliance building.
However, two most important areas are worth mentioning; the revolutionization of girls’ education, and the turn around evident in the tertiary and higher education sector.
President Yahya Jammeh himself, through personal involvement, has consistently endeavored to open up endless avenues for scholarship for Gambians, especially for the girl child and women.
This covers the Lower Basic, right up to the University of The Gambia, and abroad. There is the Jammeh Foundation for Peace (JFP), which has provided and continues to provide scholarships for deserving candidates; there is also the President’s Empowerment for Girls’ Education Project (PEGEP); and also a scholarship trust fund which caters exclusively for those in the provinces, etc. There have also been countless personal sponsorship of Gambians by the Gambian leader, which have not been accounted for. And just recently, the 22nd July Scholarship Pageant, an idea conceived by the Gambian leader himself set impetus to the spree of development.
Tertiary education, which received a lot of attention in the last 5 years, has seen tremendous growth along the way, serving, as envisaged, as a center piece in the transformation of The Gambia into a center for learning in the sub-region.
More skills and vocational training centers have been established with the GTTI gradually fulfilling its envisioned mission as a center of technological excellence.
The idea of the National Training Authority, alongside the governing councils of The Gambia College and the University of The Gambia, have ensured the steady growth in the successes registered in vocational and technical training and education, and tertiary and higher education. A prudent restructuring of The Gambia College has gone a long way in guaranteeing a continuous supply of teachers to fill the gap at all levels.
The establishment of the University of The Gambia is arguably one of the most successful of projects anywhere in Africa in the course of the last millennium. Four years since it commenced graduating its products, UTG has produced 661 scholars, scattered throughout the country. Some are already pursuing further studies abroad.
But like all other projects sanctioned by the APRC administration, the University of The Gambia attracted severe criticism when it was first conceived by its chief architect, President Yahya Jammeh.
After what must have been serious thinking by the Gambian leader, a number of Gambians, for the first time in the history of the country, earned degrees in various courses on Gambian soil, thanks to a partnership between government and Saint Mary’s University - Canada. It was called the University Extension Program.
Subsequently, the government of The Gambia saw the need for the establishment of the University of The Gambia. The Act was finally passed in 1999. The School of Medicine happened to be the pioneer institution of what was to become a national symbol. Today, that group of pioneering students that commenced the UTG have since been serving the nation after about seven years of hard work, with excellent results. This was in line with government’s long-standing concern about the status of the health sector of the country, and the need to train Gambian doctors on home soil. As at this moment, The Gambia can boast of 23 homegrown doctors, after the graduation of the medical students earlier this year. One can imagine how much it would have cost the country to educate half of that number outside The Gambia. This is a point President Jammeh had consistently put forward.
On other subject areas, success stories have also been registered. A substantial number of the university graduates are serving in the education system, with a number of them contributing their quota in the private sector. They are especially predominant in the commercial sector, the banking industry, to be precise.
In line with its desire to ensure opportunities to access higher education for its citizens, the government of The Gambia, under President Jammeh’s guidance, continues to look for scholarship, both within and outside the country. A good number of Gambians leave for further studies on a yearly basis, and priority has of late been given to UTG graduates. Taiwan has been playing host to a greater number of these students, with the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and, recently, Malaysia, following suit. A small number of them find their way into universities in the US, Russia, Cuba and the UK. Perhaps the most celebrated graduate of the UTG is Babucarr Bah, who is pursuing a Masters degree in the prestigious Oxford University, in the UK. A development, according to some officials at the University of The Gambia, which indicates that “what we are offering has quality and that we can compete everywhere”.
If information coming from the department of state responsible for tertiary and higher education is anything to go by, the much talked about integration process, aimed at bringing together all the tertiary institutions in the country under one entity – the University of The Gambia – would soon be a reality and the favorite catchphrase of His Excellency that for education, the sky is the limit, will finally come to pass.