Tropes, Networks, and Higher Education in Post-Conflict Sierra Leone: Policy Formation at the University of Makeni

David O’Kane

Father Joseph Turay is the founder and vice-Chancellor of Sierra Leone’s first private university, the University of Makeni (UNIMAK). In an interview with the present author, he made the following remarks on the subject of the role the university should play in the struggle for change and development in Sierra Leone:

Last week, I had a class with fourth year students, doing research. When I look at their research dissertation topics, they were just irrelevant. And I was asking them, for example, couldn’t you do research on, exploring the possibilities of tourism here in Makeni? Explore the possibility of building the capacity of Small Medium Enterprise in Makeni? I mean, take a look at those who are cutting down stones, those who are making pots, see how can we build their capacity. Because that is the market. Not everybody will go into the formal sector, there are no jobs in the banks, let’s not fool ourselves. And the informal sector is such that you can build the capacity, you can strengthen the capacity, that is where we can do our research. I mean these are some of the research, research that is relevant. Cross-cutting research that can address the context today.

D. O’Kane (H)

Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle (Saale), Germany © The Author(s) 2017

C.K. Hojbjerg et al. (eds.), Politics and Policies in Upper Guinea Coast Societies, DOI 10.1057/978-1-349-95013-3_14

This quote contains a series of tropes related to problems of development in the context of civil war reconstruction in postwar Sierra Leone: “strengthening capacity,” “exploring possibilities,” “building capacity.” The interview from which I am quoting here was carried out as part of an inquiry into education policy in post-conflict Sierra Leone. Policy has been the subject of anthropological interest in recent decades as anthropologists have begun to consider the ways in which policy ideas and their implementation are heavily influenced by the wider social and cultural frameworks in which they are embedded (Wedel et al. 2005). It is also the case that the implementation of policies may have deep cultural consequences for the societies in which they are implemented and carried. Shore (2010), for example, has identified a tendency in the developed world of the emergence of a “schizophrenic university,” in which the roles taken by the university fractionalize and multiply, and the ability of the university to pursue a positive social mission is undermined and eroded by its subordination to market forces. This is consistent with a neoliberal program for cultural change toward a more enabling social environment for such forces. The New Zealand case analyzed by Shore involves, for this end, the dissemination through the university of tropes such as “quality assurance” and “performance benchmarking” (Shore 2010, 16). In that case, the intention is to create a wider “paradigm shift” in which notions of higher education as a public good are replaced with a conception of such education as an individual investment (ibid., 15). The global expansion of private education—a wave of change which the UNIMAK might appear, at first to be a part of—has been part of the wider neoliberal paradigm shift which has urged a shift in consciousness toward individualism and entrepreneurialism (Bernasconi 2005, 247-248; Levy 2006). This would not be the first time that the university sector in Africa has had a role in cultural change, as noted by those who urged the creative redevelopment of African universities as institutions where teaching and research were carried out through a cultural worldview that was authentically African (Mazrui 1992). The persistence of such debates is a reminder that “the university is both an actor in evolving social processes ... and an object that is affected by these broader processes of transitions” (Sall et al. 2003, 130). How, then, and with the deployment of what tropes, is the UNIMAK shaping and being shaped by the particular forms of transition that are taking place in Sierra Leone, and how?

The foundation of the UNIMAK represented a significant turning point for education in Sierra Leone, as it was intended to pursue just such a positive social mission, outside the already existing system of public higher education. Although the country has a long history as the center of third-level education in West Africa, it had not, until UNIMAK was founded, had any history of private third-level education. The initiative that led to the legalization of private tertiary education in Sierra Leone, and which has brought a wave of private tertiary institutions in its wake, represented among other things, an addition to the institutional sources of cultural change in the country. UNIMAK, as a private university, enjoys a particular kind of autonomy in terms of its policies and its responses to the various challenges it seeks to meet in the postwar context. Nor did this mean a merely quantitative increase in the availability of higher education in Sierra Leone: as a private institution, sponsored by and connected to the Roman Catholic church, the creation of UNIMAK represented a qualitative shift in the sources of cultural innovation in the west African country: its particular kind of autonomy can be expected to produce policy outcomes that will differ from those higher education institutions in the public sector, such as Makeni’s Northern Polytechnic. However, not all private institutions are alike, and the cultural changes implied by their appearance in any given society cannot be assumed to be simple or predictable.

The introduction of innovations in higher education has been a recurring feature of Sierra Leonean history. That history saw the creation of a western university at a very early date (Paracka Jr. 2003), and this university, Fourah Bay College, would later become the nucleus of the public University of Sierra Leone. From its inception, Fourah Bay College had international links, as the UNIMAK does today. The history of educational change in Sierra Leone has been part of the wider history of cultural change in that country, and that history has involved the incorporation of individuals, communities, and groups into new networks of cultural interaction and exchange. Howard and Skinner, for example, have shown how the forging of new network links across northern Sierra Leone in the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century had very stark consequences for political alliances and, ultimately, the incorporation of northern Sierra Leone into British imperial hegemony (1984, 24). Through these networks, and within them, new forms of social activity will emerge. In such cases, old and new cultural forms, including cultural tropes, may coexist with or interact with each other. Educational institutions, including universities, are sites of cultural interaction where this is particularly likely to occur.

This chapter sketches some of the ways in which new tropes have emerged as a consequence of the creation of UNIMAK. In the next section, I describe the wider social environment in which UNIMAK exists— an environment in which Makeni, the northern region, and Sierra Leone as a whole was engaged in a process of reconstruction, a process which opened a new chapter in the forms of connection within the country, and outside it. These connections bring the university into network connections with the outside world that have a key role in the formation of policy in the institution. The implications of this for the understanding of the role of policy in contemporary Sierra Leone are then sketched in a discussion section, before the conclusion returns to the major point of the argu- ment—that the UNIMAK may represent a new source of cultural change in contemporary Sierra Leone. The tropes implicit in the quotation from Father Turay with which this chapter began will be accompanied by others, which may not be consistent with the apparently market-oriented tropes of entrepreneurialism alluded to there.

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