Post-Ebola Challenges for Education in West Africa
Alexa Tyler Bordner, Credential Evaluator at World Education Services
In December 2013, an Ebola case was confirmed in Guinea that would spur the first major outbreak of the virus in Africa since 2007, spreading by land from Guinea to Liberia and Sierra Leone. Since the outbreak began, over 27,000 people have contracted the virus and over 11,000 have died from it, according to the Center for Disease Control. Most cases have occurred in these three West African countries, and the outbreak has had wide-ranging impacts beyond public health, with the education sector being particularly hard hit. As part of the effort to contain the rapid spread of the virus, governments in all three countries were forced to close schools and universities.
In May 2015, Liberia was declared Ebola-free, pursuant to the World Health Organization’s requisite 42 days passing after burial of the last laboratory-confirmed case. It seemed as if the Ebola outbreak was nearing a close, but new cases have since been reported in all three countries, albeit at rates of less than ten per day. Continued surveillance and containment efforts remain essential. Although schools in the three countries have since reopened, the closures were a serious setback for their education systems, which were just beginning to rebuild their infrastructures after prolonged periods of conflict and instability prior to the Ebola outbreak. Needless to say, the outbreak has put additional strain on the resources and efforts directed at rebuilding infrastructure and investment in education.
With a youth literacy rate of 37.6% for males and 21.8% for females, Guinea is one of the most educationally impoverished nations in Africa. The government spends about 2.5% of GDP on education. Despite possessing large reserves of natural resources such as bauxite, iron ore, gold and diamonds, the majority of the population lives in extreme poverty. Since attaining independence from France in 1958, the country has endured decades of authoritarian rule, and past economic policies have allowed for rampant corruption, which has severely impeded economic, social and educational development. Over the past five years, however, a post-coup transitional government has been working to promote fair elections, amend mining codes, and build infrastructure to attract foreign investment. The Ebola outbreak halted these positive developments in their tracks. The promising economic growth reported in 2014, which could have had a positive effect on education in Guinea, is projected by the World Bank to shrink to -0.2% from 4.3% by the end of 2015.
Given the overall economic impact that the virus is expected to have on the country, the percentage of students attending school at all levels is expected projected to diminish. Before the Ebola outbreak, UNICEF reports that only 26.5% of males and 17.4% of females attended secondary school regularly. During periods of runaway inflation, the cost of school uniforms, books and desks, which families are required to supply, has caused the number of students to sink even lower. Schools closed in Guinea for almost a year during the height of the Ebola outbreak, from March 2014 until January 2015. According to a report by IRIN approximately 850 children lost at least one parent during the outbreak, making the costs associated with educating these children even more prohibitive.
Guinea’s universities, including major institutions such as Université Kofi Annan de Guinee and Université Gamal Abdel Nasser de Conkary, have also been affected by the outbreak. According to the Guinean Embassy in Washington, DC, tertiary institutions re-opened with the rest of Guinean schools in January 2015, having lost the Spring 2014 and Winter 2015 semesters. With so many parental deaths as a result of the virus, many university-aged students who were enrolled or who may have been planning to enroll in university will not be entering or returning to their studies, and will instead be responsible for supporting their families financially. Ebola has caused increased financial strain, and that financial strain in turn has severely affected school attendance. Younger students are pulled out of school because their families cannot meet the costs, and older students must work to feed those who cannot.
The 2003 Peace Agreement in Liberia ended more than a decade of civil war, which put 80% of schools out of commission, many of which were subsequently destroyed. As many as 15,000 children were conscripted as soldiers during the conflict. Liberia began to recover under the leadership of a transitional government, until the 2005 election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first democratically-elected female African head of state. Liberia has since made great strides to rebuild its infrastructure and improve education. The government spends 2.8% of GDP on education and the UNICEF youth literacy rate is 63.5% for males and 37.2% for females. As a result of the Ebola outbreak, the World Bank reported a decline in GDP growth in 2014, from 5.9% to 2.2%, but the most recent estimate expects 3.0% growth by the end of 2015, a good sign for Liberia that distinguishes the country from Guinea and Sierra Leone. The World Bank reported negative growth projections for both this year.
All schools re-opened in February 2015 after a six month closure, according to the Liberian Embassy’s Minister Counselor for Press & Public Affairs. When the announcement was made that schools would re-open, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is quoted as saying that “the cost of opening schools, as proposed by public, private schools and higher education institutions, is simply prohibitive.” During the closure, everyone was instructed to stay home, except for essential personnel, so the government also needed time to address weaknesses in the system.
For example, families, staff and the schools themselves had not been given advance notice of the re-opening. Therefore, families needed to ascertain how they might afford the uniforms, books and fees needed to return their children to school; teachers, needed time to prepare their lessons; and schools needed to complete administrative planning, including the introduction of sanitation procedures. Therefore, between the announcement that schools were to re-open and the actual start of classes, there was a mandated transitional period. While the government is already fully responsible for the funding of public schools, it will also partially subsidize private schools until recovery, in order to keep as many primary and secondary students in school as possible.
Liberian universities that played a special role in the containment and elimination of Ebola now face the additional challenge of converting from medical facilities back to functioning higher education institutions. Cuttington University, for example, is well-known for its nursing and pre-medical programs. It is also located close to areas that were majorly affected by the outbreak, and many graduates are health industry professionals who were involved in treatment of patients and containment efforts. During the outbreak, the university helped to operate an Ebola Treatment Unit in partnership with the International Medical Corps (IMC), while also housing staff and providing facilities for health worker trainings conducted by the IMC. The U.S. Navy also used Cuttington’s College of Allied Health Sciences building to open a mobile Ebola laboratory. Largely due to the fact that the university diverted its resources during the crisis to assist with relief efforts, it struggled to find the funds to pay faculty arrears and day-to-day operational costs upon re-opening. However, with government assistance, classes have resumed and graduation is scheduled for September.
Much like Liberia, Sierra Leone had been gradually recovering from a decade-long civil war that ended in 2001 when Ebola struck. During the civil war, schools in some areas of Sierra Leone were shut down for so long that some students crossed the border to Guinea or Liberia in an attempt to further their education. As many as 10,000 children were conscripted as soldiers. After years of recovery, the government now spends 2.9% of GDP on education and the UNICEF youth literacy rate has risen to 70.5% for males and 52.1% for females, as of 2012. The World Bank originally projected an 8.9% growth in GDP for 2015, but has since revised the estimate to -2.0% as a result of the negative economic affects of the Ebola outbreak.
The Ebola outbreak has caused economic growth to slow and educational opportunities to diminish, especially for girls, for whom there already existed great disparity in educational opportunity. The deaths of bread-winning family members now means that many families are unable to afford food, let alone the fees to support their children’s studies. Many children are instead sent out to make money for the family, and in the case of teenage girls, some return pregnant. The dire economic situation for many families has spurred a surge in teenage pregnancies, to which the government has responded with a ban on “visibly pregnant” girls from attending school. The goal of the ban is reportedly to prevent other students from becoming de-motivated. In practice, the ban can be expected to effectively prevent an already low number of senior secondary school girls from sitting exams to gain university entrance and, in many cases, terminate their education entirely.
At the university level, class is back in session at University of Sierra Leone and University of Makeni, as of April 2015, but strikes have caused additional delays for some students. Njala University, one of Sierra Leone’s major universities, should have been operational as of April 20, 2015, but as doors opened, the institution faced a lecturer strike demanding that Professor Abu Sesay step down from his post as President and Vice-Chancellor, citing non-payment, poor leadership, loss of staff confidence, and negligence with regards to maintenance of university facilities. The lecturers are supported by student complaints that the current environment is unfit for learning. According to Sierra Leonean press reports, the Parliamentary Education Committee has attempted to mediate. In the meantime, some lecturers who are not participating in the strike have agreed to take on additional courses so as to allow university students to continue on with their studies. Other senior lecturers involved in the strikes have reportedly been dismissed, while rumors circulate that the Vice-Chancellor may step down.
Despite challenges, the government, as well as the University of Sierra Leone, has endeavored to make up for lost time through a number of strategies. Educational materials provided through television and radio stations bolstered primary and secondary school students during the closure, which lasted from July 2014 to April 2015. For USL students, both electronic and hard copies of lecture notes were made available to registered students, but promises of internet-based distance education collapsed due to a lack of resources and infrastructure. Schools will operate on a condensed academic schedule, which will eliminate at least some extra-curricular subjects and holiday breaks. USL, for example, held first semester exams at the beginning of July, when students would typically be on summer holiday.
At this time, the administrative offices of all universities in the three countries discussed are open for regular studies and students should not encounter any difficulty in acquiring official copies of their documentation from the registrar. Although some delay can be expected, due to a back-log of verifications pending over the closure period, institutions are responding within a reasonable time frame to requests for verification of documents, without exception. This includes Njala University in Sierra Leone, which has experienced lecturer strikes after re-opening.
The Ebola outbreak has not only affected higher education for Africans within Africa, but could potentially shrink opportunities for students from affected countries to study in the United States and other Western countries, due to a fear of contagion. There has been only one reported incident of an institution openly rejecting students on the basis of their country of origin, but speculation remains that others may be discreetly doing the same.
Despite guidance from the Center for Disease Control specifying that “CDC is not recommending colleges and universities isolate or quarantine students, faculty, or staff based on travel history alone,” Navarro College in Texas has automatically rejected students from countries where any Ebola cases had been confirmed. Although copies of the e-mails sent to these students were made public by CNBC, which initially reported the story, the school later attempted to cover up the incident by insisting that the rejected applicants had been given wrong information, and that the school was rather focusing its international recruiting in other regions for the time being.
Despite the disappointment caused by the Navarro College incident, data would suggest that so-called “Ebola-fear” has not become endemic to the United States. Although 2015 numbers have yet to be reported, the Institute for International Education’s annual Open Doors report indicates that the number of students from Ebola-affected countries studying abroad in the United States continued to increase from the 2012/ 2013 academic year to the 2013/ 2014 academic year. Liberia was the exception, but the number of Liberian students abroad in the U.S. decreased only marginally from 172 to 161. Meanwhile, enrollments from Guinea increased 1.3% from 79 to 80 students and the number from Sierra Leone increased by a healthy 18.7%, from 123 to 146. Nigeria, which was marginally impacted by the Ebola outbreak, ranks among the top 20 sending countries for U.S. universities and the number of Nigerian students studying in the U.S. increased from 7,316 to 7,921 between 2013 and 2014.
Conversely, American students have not historically chosen to study abroad at West African universities in the same numbers as West African students who have chosen to enroll at American universities. In 2013, only 5% of all American study abroad students attended a university in a sub-Saharan African country. Open Doors reported 89 students as studying in Sierra Leone, 47 students studying in Liberia, and 20 in Guinea. Just two years ago, Guinea had no students from the United States choosing to study abroad there. The report also lists 32 students in neighboring Nigeria and 2,086 in Ghana. Given the temporary suspension of a number of programs run by U.S. institutions, such as the Sierra Leone program run by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne and the Ghana program run by New York University, these numbers can reasonably be expected to decrease drastically for 2014-2015.