How can we help students develop the skills that employers and society really need? University-employer engagement in Sierra Leone

There’s often a mismatch between the courses that universities deliver, and the skills that employers and society really need. Find out how SPHEIR’s AQHEd-SL partnership is tackling this with an innovative approach to employer engagement in Sierra Leone.

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AQHEd-SL Project Task Force members, together with Sierra Leone’s Minister of Technical and Higher Education Prof Aiah Gbakima (third from the right, front row).

Around the world, university courses are often perceived as being mismatched or ‘out of sync’ with the needs of employers and society. There’s a feeling that universities aren’t quite doing enough to prepare students for employment or to help students develop vital transferable skills (critical-thinking, communications, digital etc) and specialist skills.

The causes of this mismatch vary from one university and degree programme to another, but typically it all boils down to limited staff time and resources — resulting in strained quality assurance systems, a lack of pedagogical training, and weak links between the university and employers.

The Assuring Quality Higher Education in Sierra Leone (AQHEd-SL) partnership was set up to address some of these challenges. Part of the UK-aid funded SPHEIR programme, the partnership is bringing together higher education institutions across Sierra Leone to improve quality assurance in higher education and to support the introduction and implementation of outcome-based education (OBE). The ultimate aim is to bring about a student-centred focus within higher education across the country, leading to a more responsive and capable national workforce.

Led by the University of Sierra Leone, the project includes Sierra Leone partners Njala University, the University of Makeni, Tertiary Education Commission, Sierra Leone Institution of Engineers, Freetown Teachers College, Ernest Bai Koroma University of Science and Technology, Eastern Polytechnic, 50/50 Group and the Milton Margai College of Education and Technology — plus UK partners King’s College London and INASP, as well as the University of Illinois from the United States.

Aligning curricula to employer needs

Launched in 2018, the AQHEd-SL project has recently developed a unified curriculum review template that is now being applied in all higher educational institutions in Sierra Leone. The aim of the template is to raise the quality of teaching and learning and to ensure there is a standardised approach to curriculum development across higher education.

The project has also created a Skills Development Network (SDN) — essentially consultative groups of employers from key sectors in Sierra Leone — to advise on the content of degree programmes. This network is now contributing to curriculum design for degree programmes in STEM, Health, Management and Agriculture.

Hannah Lewis, AQHEd-SL Project Manager, explains how the Skills Development Network is benefitting the universities:

“The input from the SDN has proven immensely valuable in identifying gaps in current curricula and in the skill sets of past graduates. For some degree programmes, like electrical engineering, employers shared views on the relevance of specific technical content to jobs in the current market, and views on the optimum learning progression of technical skills. In others, like the Accounting and Finance programme, employers have highlighted general knowledge gaps observed in past graduates, such as problem-solving, communications and numeracy, to inform how development of these skills might be better incorporated into teaching.”

The SDN also provides an avenue for building stakeholder awareness and support for gender responsive content and pedagogy, and strengthening relationships between employers and higher education.

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A stakeholder engagement interview between Mr Edward J. Beah (right), one of the lecturers in the faculty of Commerce and Management at the University of Makeni, and Mr Victor N Davies (left), Audit Manager at Baker Tilly as part of the activities in the Management cluster

The project’s ambition is to transform the quality of higher education in the entire country by progressively moving all degree programmes to an OBE model, and the initial degree programmes being redesigned under the project are serving as exemplars.

Quality assurance

Another notable development of the partnership is the publication of a Quality Assurance Teaching, Learning and Assessment document. This was developed via a workshop with Internal Quality Assurance (IQA) members from across the higher education institutions and members of the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC). Workshop participants worked together to discuss and formulate a guide for assessing the quality of teaching, learning and assessment.

The formulation of this document is a significant achievement, providing guidance and a clear framework for quality assurance assessment for revised curricula which can be undertaken by the IQA units. The document is also a strong step towards building sustainable systems of consistent quality assurance practices across universities, and with the involvement of the TEC.

Prof Redwood-Sawyerr explains,

“The document is now providing guidance to IQA units in all local partner universities on revising policies, processes and systems in their institutions. From streamlining exams processes at the University of Makeni, to reviewing avenues for staff professional development at the University of Sierra Leone, the guidance is already transforming the previously static higher education landscape into a progressive environment which will benefit staff, students and employers.”

Assuring Quality Higher Education in Sierra Leone task force

On 30 September 2020, the Sierra Leone Minister of Technical and Higher Education, Prof Aiah Gbakima, launched the Assuring Quality Higher Education in Sierra Leone task force. Bringing together professionals from government ministries, departments and agencies, universities, plus businesses and engineering firms, the task force will contribute to the implementation of the reforms which have been introduced by the AQHEd-SL project.

The Hon. Minister of Technical and Higher Education said that he was delighted with the UK aid-funded AQHEd-SL project, which he emphasised has helped improve quality and strengthened collaboration among higher institutions of learning in Sierra Leone.

“I am happy for this initiative for not only helping in reviewing our curriculum but also for building and sustaining synergies and collaboration among higher institutions of learning and involvement of the private sector and civil society.”

Looking ahead, AQHEd-SL has exciting plans to up-scale the work of the project, including by:

  • Introducing guest lecturing, academic-employer networking events and careers fairs to strengthen employer engagement with students and staff
  • Continuing pedagogical training with teaching staff and establishing a critical mass of lecturers to continue training staff on improved teaching, learning and assessment and OBE in their institutions
  • Supporting EQA and IQA to monitor and evaluate institutions
  • Creating a National Qualifications Framework for Higher Education.

AQHEd-SL is part of the SPHEIR programme. The Strategic Partnerships for Higher Education Innovation and Reform (SPHEIR) programme is funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) and is managed on behalf of FCDO by a consortium led by the British Council that includes PwC and Universities UK International.

This post was written by the SPHEIR team and first published on the SPHEIR blog.

Follow @AQHEd_SL on Twitter for the latest updates

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

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