How a nation-wide higher-education reform partnership in Sierra Leone is adapting to COVID-19 restrictions

Samuel Weekes, Project Director, Assuring Quality Higher Education in Sierra Leone

Since 2018, higher-education institutions across Sierra Leone have been working together in new ways to improve the quality of higher education in the country, with the ultimate aim of preparing graduates for better opportunities in the job market.

The Assuring Quality Higher Education in Sierra Leone (AQHEd-SL) partnership arose from a recognition from employers that graduates lacked some of the skills that they need for employment after university — skills such as critical thinking, being able to work independently, being able to make good decisions in the workplace, communication skills and ICT skills. Faced with this challenge, universities and higher-education institutions across Sierra Leone saw the opportunity to address these skills gaps through partnership on a national scale, as well as working with civil society groups and international organisations towards achieving this common aim.

AQHEd-SL, part of the UKAID-funded SPHEIR programme, is led by the University of Sierra Leone with Kings College, London looking after the finance functions. The partnership is addressing the skills gap challenge across Sierra Leone in three main ways:

(1) Stakeholder engagement and policy reforms

(2) Strengthening the national regulatory and internal institutional capacities for effective quality enhancement

(3) Curriculum re-design and pedagogical improvements

Addressing these key goals across the entire country at once would be very challenging and might limit the opportunities to learn and reflect. The AQHEd-SL approach is therefore to stagger the implementation process, starting with curriculum revision in what we call “anchor institutions” — University of Sierra Leone, Njala University and University of Makeni across four distinct disciplines, or “Clusters” — Health, Agriculture, STEM and Management and Accounting.

Based on lessons learned from the curriculum review experience with the anchor universities, developments and changes are cascaded to other programmes identified in higher-education institutions in the country, known as the waterfall institutions (four of them). The curriculum revision is guided by a curriculum revision template, developed by key individuals in the partnership, and includes input for each revised course from stakeholders in the same field.

Across the four Clusters, the AQHEd-SL partnership has been organising workshops and other activities to review and update curricula, improve how critical thinking skills are developed within university teaching, engage with wider stakeholders and ensure that changes help to redress gender imbalances. The revised curriculum is being rolled out in each Cluster according to project timelines and university time tables; waterfall institutions will also soon start revising and rolling out their curriculum in the designated academic programmes.

Implementation in 2020 was planned to build on these activities, with further face-to-face pedagogy training, critical thinking workshops and curriculum review workshops lined up, as well as further development of relationships between the HEIs and stakeholders with career fairs and guest lectures at anchor institutions and networking events between stakeholder and academics.

Adapting to changing plans

The year began as normal (for example, a curriculum review workshop was held at Njala University in early March). Unfortunately, however, over recent months the COVID-19 pandemic has changed plans worldwide. Universities and higher-education institutions are currently closed in Sierra Leone. Consequently, with increased restrictions on gatherings, AQHEd-SL’s planned face-to-face meetings and workshops could not happen.

Adapting to such a major change is a big challenge for any project, despite the recent experience that Sierra Leone has from tackling the Ebola epidemic. The AQHEd-SL partnership’s initial response was to rearrange some of the timing of activities so the team was able to focus initially on administration, taking stock of the situation and planning in order to determine the most effective ways to continue work.

It also enabled us to reflect on the key challenges for delivering higher-education teaching in Sierra Leone in responding to the current pandemic:

- University internet and systems. Widespread closing of universities, which has given rise to the need for uploading modules for students, is a situation that we did not prepare for and there are still improvements that need to be made to university systems and portals.

- Technical skills of teaching staff. Providing continued teaching online depends on lecturers uploading teaching materials to the university portals but many face challenges in this endeavour as they may not have experience working with the online format.

- Access of the students. With students now working from home, many are far away from university portals, with no or unreliable internet connections. Access is also dependent on if students have paid their fees and registered for their courses.

The third of these challenges is the biggest. While our universities are working hard to ensure that systems and staff develop the tools and skills needed to make materials available, the success or otherwise of this work depends on students’ capacity to access materials. Over recent months we have been experimenting with a range of tools and have found that, for many students, the only viable option for connecting currently is WhatsApp, one of the most common communication apps in the country and also one that only requires a very low internet connection to operate. This is now feeding into our work. For example, with the critical thinking component of our curriculum revision, we have found that sending information to lecturers and answering questions about incorporating critical thinking skills in the classroom via WhatsApp has been effective at engaging them and stimulating discussion.

For the curriculum review process within AQHEd-SL, much of the work is usually done via workshops and other face-to-face meetings. As curriculum redesign is a major component of our project, it has been important to use alternative approaches, such as meetings over Zoom and Skype, to ensure that the work goes ahead.

We are also exploring holding stakeholder engagement meetings via video links. Our stakeholder networks are aligned with the four Clusters in the project and we are optimistic that most groups will be able to meet virtually, although the people who are working in healthcare are understandably very busy at this time as part of the COVID-19 response team.

Strengthening foundations

An aspect that has grown since the start of the pandemic has been our project meetings. We now have extended project meetings every other Friday incorporating members of the Project Co-ordinating Unit and Cluster members. These meetings are useful for sharing learning and support among institutions about work on AQHEd-SL. For example, we have shared experiences of uploading teaching modules and getting them online. These meetings have also been an excellent opportunity for project planning and coordination. We are using these meetings to share and work as one unit, not seven, working as a team and looking for solutions relating to our various problems, which is very fruitful.

These discussions have helped us to understand more about what is needed in terms of technology to support learning in Sierra Leone. We hope that, through these current difficult experiences, we are also developing a more robust foundation and understanding about how to overcome challenges both now and for Sierra Leone’s higher education institutions in the future.

The #SPHEIR project Assuring Quality in Higher Education in Sierra Leone.