The math was alarmingly simple. Nearly 25,000 students took the entrance exam for the University of Liberia this year, and every one of those nearly 25,000 failed.
In a sheepish press conference last week, the university announced that not a single applicant received a passing mark to attend one of the West African country’s flagship institutions, and that they would be required to lower their standards in order to populate a new freshman class.
"In English, the mechanics of the language, [our students] didn't know anything about it,” said Momodu Getaweh, a vice president for university relations at the school, in an interview with the BBC. “The government has to do something.”
It was an unmitigated public relations disaster for a university at the center of an educational system that President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson bluntly declared in March is still “a big mess,” 10 years after the end of a vicious civil war that killed more than 150,000 people and sent 250,000 fleeing to neighboring countries.
And from the West, it read as yet another bad news Africa story. Here, after all, was a country so hobbled by the aftershocks of conflict that it couldn’t produce a single college-ready high-school graduate.
But numbers can be slippery, and university officials say there’s another, less obvious explanation for the 100 percent failure rate: They were trying to root out a grinding culture of corruption in the country’s higher education system.
“There is a perception in our society largely that once you take the University of Liberia admission exam, if you do not pay money to someone, or if you do not have appropriate connections, you would not be placed on the results list,” said James Dorbor Jallah, who was hired by the university to administer the entrance exam, in an interview with Voice of America. “The University has been grappling with how they could manage the process whereby people’s abilities would be truly measured on the basis of their performance on the examination.”
This year, he said, was the first time in the university’s history that admissions were to be determined by score alone, guaranteeing – at least in theory – that a spot at the school couldn’t be earned through a bribe or family connections. In a country with a long history of closely policed social hierarchies, the new exam was meant to be the beginning of a Liberian educational meritocracy, he said.
But that plan backfired when not a single student met the rigorous new standard – a score of 50 percent on the math section of the exam and 70 percent in English. (Several hundred students, however, passed at least one section of the test.)
Scrambling to fill the open seats, the university announced that it would offer admission to some 1,600 students with lower scores, requiring them to complete two remedial courses before beginning their program of study.
Meanwhile, the “Freshman Class of Zero” headlines have drawn renewed attention to Liberia’s halting transition to peacetime. Its former president, Charles Taylor, was the first sitting head of state to be indicted for war crimes (for his role in the civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone) since the Nuremberg trials. He was convicted last year.
Meanwhile, the administration of the current president – and Africa’s first elected female head of state – Ms. Sirleaf Johnson, has been riddled with charges of corruption and inefficiency, with many critics complaining that she has done little to improve the shattered educational system she inherited. As The News, a Liberian newspaper, wrote in a recent editorial, in many arenas the country’s stalled progress has led to an uneasy nostalgia for the wartime administration.
Liberia is politically a better place today than it was between 1998 and 2003. Our people are pleased with the peaceful environment they now enjoy, but regrettably, they are exasperated that the current administration is unable to economically address serious issues of poverty and unemployment ….
The Taylor Regime was considered as tyrannical and despotic, thus reducing Liberia to a rogue and failed state … but the Liberian people were at least comfortable, although they were never happy with his belligerence.