A Case for a University of Science and Technology in The Gambia
The Gambian Government recently approved a proposal to convert the Gambia Technical Training Institute (GTTI) to a University of Science and Technology (UST)- a move which was met with mixed reactions. Some argue that it is premature, that we have not perfected our premier institution- the UTG, which should be our focus. Others argue that focusing on tertiary education is a nonstarter because our basic education is terrible, with 4% graduating high school with 5 credits. While all of these arguments may have some validity, I happen to be in full support of an endeavor to establish a UST and, feel it is imperative to lay out the case.
The Gambia is going through a rapid demographic transition, with a projected population expected to exceed 5 million in a little over a decade. This exponential population growth and changes in our demographics will place considerable strain on our resources, and pose new challenges in the 21st century. These challenges such as transportation, air pollution, overcrowding, deforestation, ecological strain, disease epidemics, and housing crises are already being felt in the Kombos. I argue that the solutions to these problems lie in the Sciences Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) fields, and will need to be developed locally in the Gambia.
The Gambia has too many lawyers, political scientists, educationists, diplomats, ACCA accountants, and “social media activists”. On the other hand, there is a dearth of engineers, mathematicians, microbiologists, physicists, environmental scientists, immunologists, physiotherapists, laboratory technicians; few electrical, civil, mechanical and petroleum engineers. The Gambia does not have Emergency Medicine Technicians to provide prehospital care, or Hospital Engineering personnel to maintain equipment. To argue that it is ill conceived or premature to establish a UST at this time is an asinine proposition. Make no mistake, the Gambia’s problems in the 21st century will not be solved by the professionals in the former category (mostly in the arts and humanities) where we seem to have an abundance of “experts”, but rather by those in the latter STEM category in which we have very few professionals.
A reflection on the history of the University of the Gambia (UTG) is instructive. At its inception the prior regime, under dictator Jammeh decided to establish a university against the same arguments posed by these loud-mouthed expert naysayers:- it is premature, our high schools are poor, we do not have the resources, etc. Yet, with the benefit of hindsight a decade later, no one can say that it was not the right call to establish UTG. Is the UTG perfect? No! In fact, it is the same “incompetent” high school graduates who matriculate into UTG and become our lawyers, doctors, nurses, and politicians. We are again at a crossroads, and we hear these same arguments raised against the establishment of a University of Science & Technology from “experts” who are mostly neither scientists, nor have any experience in the establishment of academic institutions in resource constrained settings. There is an air of arrogance, condescension and academic elitism mostly originating from an “elite” faction of Gambians who have had the privilege of studying abroad and feel that we must transplant their parochial view of higher education in The Gambia. This behavior is manifest in several ways, you hear comments about how we lack “technocrats”, rather than adopting a pragmatic and systematic view of things you hear strong criticisms hauled at our doctors for being “incompetent” without walking in their shoes for a day.
The question for Gambia now is not whether we need a University of Science & Technology- that is a rhetorical question, and the answer is an emphatic YES! Where there is room for discussion is how that institution should be structured. The Government has decided to convert one of our long-standing vocational institutions into a UST rather than establish an autonomous College of Engineering under the UTG, which in my opinion is irrelevant as long as the institution meets the Gambia’s STEM needs in the 21st century. In fact, one can argue that given our large population growth rate, the Gambia will need more than one university- it is just a matter of time. We have foreigners in our country establishing private universities like American University West Africa (AIUWA) who are matriculating our “weak” high school graduates and producing graduates who are now working in Gambia, how much more the Government. Rome was not built in a day, and to argue that because our high school performances are poor, therefore we should not work on higher education is a fallacy. Both problems (basic and higher education) are not mutually exclusive and need to be addressed simultaneously. Whether we like it or not, it is the same students who fail achieve the “5 credits” who subsequently end up going to study at the current UTG and some go to study abroad and have gone on to have illustrious careers! That should make one pause and reflect on what is really going on in our basic education system.
Rather than engage in academic elitism, and social media activism, it will be more productive if can we put our shoulders to the wheel and support an endeavor to establish a UST that will train the next generation of scientists and engineers in The Gambia.