Gender equity: helping all students benefit from higher education changes

Changes to higher education should benefit all students. Gender equity goals are embedded within the work of the AQHEd-SL project in Sierra Leone.

For the past three years, universities across Sierra Leone have been working together, alongside wider stakeholders, to address a key challenge: improving higher education approaches so that students are better equipped for the world of work after they graduate. The Assuring Quality Higher Education in Sierra Leone (AQHEd-SL) partnership is focused on two key areas: improving the quality assurance processes in higher education across the country and improving the teaching processes and design to equip students better with the skills they need beyond university.

The partnership has made great progress on implementing national approaches, supporting curriculum redesign and helping lecturers to equip their students with critical thinking skills. But there is another thread to this work: ensuring that the benefits are experienced by all students.

This is where Sierra Leonean advocacy organization 50/50 Group comes in. The role of 50/50 in the partnership is to address gender equity and inclusion within AQHEd-SL. As Dr. Fatou Taqi, President of 50/50 and a member of staff at University of Sierra Leone, explained:

“50/50 is a gender parity advocacy group so our main aim is to make sure there’s parity in all processes for women as leaders, and for women to have more spaces in public life.”

In terms of the AQHEd-SL partnership, she said:

“We’re looking to have a lens where you make everyone involved, where people feel part of the process. So we’re looking at the gender aspect, we’re looking at persons with disability and normally marginalized groups of people, to make sure how we do a process is inclusive so that it involves everyone.”

Lena Thompson, a lecturer at the Department of Political Science at Fourah Bay College, is also involved in the 50/50 Group. She said:

“The impact of [AQHEd-SL] for Sierra Leone universities is important because it ensures that there is quality assurance across the board in Sierra Leone, and it also ensures that we look at what we are teaching and to bring our topics, our syllabuses, up to date so that it reflects the reality of Sierra Leone. [50/50 Group] are here to ensure that we have equity in the policies and the programmes that [the project will] eventually put forward. We are here as a safeguard to ensure that there is gender equality and issues that affect gender are also reflected in the outputs.”

Improving gender equity, supported by 50/50 Group, is embedded throughout AQHEd-SL’s work. In the area of quality assurance, the Quality Assurance officers from all the higher education institutions (HEI) in the country have undergone gender training to address issues of gender, inclusion and equity in HEI policies and the wider administration (rather than just in the student/classroom context).

Ensuring equity and inclusion requires champions at an institutional level. Last year, 50/50 organised institutional training sessions for all the institutions involved in AQHEd-SL to address the problem of not having a critical mass of gender champions at each institution.

Within the classroom, a desire for gender equity impacts approaches to teaching and lecturers across the project have taken part in gender champion training.

Edward James Beah, who teaches Accounting and Finance at the University of Makeni, explained the difference that the training has made to his teaching approaches:

“… our teaching priorities are masculine centred and we never consider that the examples we give while teaching are masculine examples; we just think it is ok. So I had to learn to [re-think] my career as a teacher, the content of the material that I teach, you have to consciously think of the material and teaching.”

Also at the University of Makeni, Dr Santigie Kaba, who is Dean for the Faculty of Commerce and Management, has also reflected on his teaching approaches since doing the training:

“On the gender side, I try to change from saying police-man to police officer or soldier-man to soldier, and to try and encourage shy women in the class to speak up. The women try and sit at the back of the class, but now I encourage them to distribute themselves evenly across the classroom.”

Dr Kaba also observed the importance of being aware of safeguarding issues when meeting students:

“I try to meet [students] in an open place where they are comfortable (to consider gender/harassment).”

Beyond the universities, gender equity engagement is important with wider stakeholders. Last year the 50/50 Group led training with the STEM cluster. The specific focus was on raising the profile of female engineers and encouraging more equal opportunities within the field. This ambition is supported by the Sierra Leone Institute of Engineers, which is another one of the partners in AQHEd-SL and which now has a female President and Vice President.

As we reach the final months of the project in Sierra Leone, we reflect on an increased awareness on gender equity, inclusion and mainstreaming at all levels in the project, amongst the key partner institutions and the other institutions that are involved. The inclusion of wider administration and teaching staff in training is helping to ensure that awareness surrounding equity issues will increase and will provide a more sensitive space to discuss how to tackle challenges together with the aim of lasting and more equitable impact across Sierra Leone’s higher education sector and beyond.

Assuring Quality Higher Education in Sierra Leone is bringing together higher education institutions across Sierra Leone to improve quality management in higher education and support the introduction and implementation of outcome-based education. It aims to bring about a student-centred focus within higher education across the country, leading to a more responsive and capable national workforce.

The partnership is led by the University of Sierra Leone (Sierra Leone), working with Njala University (Sierra Leone), the University of Makeni (Sierra Leone), Tertiary Education Commission (Sierra Leone), Sierra Leone Institution of Engineers (Sierra Leone), King’s College London (UK), the 50/50 Group, INASP (UK), and the University of Illinois (US).

AQHEd-SL is funded by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) as part of its SPHEIR (Strategic Partnerships for Higher Education Innovation and Reform) programme to support higher education transformation in focus countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Middle East.