26.2 C
City of Banjul
Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Pierre Gomez, Minister of Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology

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With Alagie Manneh

Your predecessor, who is now the vice president, has received a lot of flak for not doing much to improve the higher education sector having overseen it for many years. In your case, now would you like to be remembered when you leave your new job?

Thank you. Two things in your question; one regarding my predecessor, His Excellency Badara Joof. Let me just tell you that he did a lot. Many people did not know. Maybe it was not well communicated, but he did a lot. He set up the good policies that I am implementing now. He is the one who laid the foundation stone, the road map which I am implementing now. Also, the famous [University of Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology] USET, it was he who engaged the World Bank so that the World Bank would take The Gambia as an example. We are the only ones in Africa to be given this type of support. Others, they find them in their universities and support their programmes. We need to recognise the foresight and his willingness and high level of patriotism in the service of The Gambia. Now, how would I like to be remembered? For me, it’s about The Gambia. I feel that I’m here to serve, so, whatever I do I want it to be done based on two things; for God and for country. Pro patria. I have a mission to accomplish here, and once it is done, I will go.

You had had a Christian upbringing. Can you briefly talk about that?

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The family moved from Dobson Street in Banjul to London Corner where I grew up. At a point in time, my father was the one who was insisting that we should be going by what God said, and asked that we should not look at him as the model, that there is only one model and is God. So, he is not the reference. He taught us to do as the Bible says. That’s my story. There was a time I wanted to be a priest. Many did not know that. It was my mom who did not want [me to become one].

Why did you decide to become a professor of comparative literature?

I did a double major in English and French. At that time, when I was doing it, I wanted to do diplomacy. That was my objective. When I came back, I was with some of my colleagues, and I was told of a vacancy at a college and I decided to go and teach there while waiting for vacancies from the PMO for me to apply. I went and later, there was an opportunity and I went for studies to go and read education. That took me to France. Later, when I finished, I did my teaching practice there and when I came back, I changed my mind. I said this is what I want to do. I am no longer going to the civil service to be a diplomat. I decided to stay in the classroom. I ended up staying for 25 good years moving from college to the UTG, to Sweden and US.

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For ten years, you served as dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, and later as acting VC of the UTG. What were some of your key achievements during your tenure of these high offices?

It’s difficult to talk about yourself. Maybe the students would be in a better position to say what I was able to do. But just for this exercise, I will attempt to list some achievements. First, we reviewed programmes at the School Of Arts And Sciences of the UTG. All the programmes, both in human and social sciences were reviewed at that time. We hired more lecturers. By the time I left the School Of Arts And Sciences, the staff population doubled, compared to what I found. That’s one. Two, we were able to have more Gambian lecturers than what I found. Three, we were able to develop a system that will help us identify the good students and hire them as graduate assistants and then later would join some of our master’s programmes that we developed. At other times, they would go out for studies through UTGs scholarship or other scholarships elsewhere, and we would be paying their salaries. They came back and ended up being lecturers. Some of them are now senior lecturers in different areas. Some of my students at that time we hired are now senior lecturers in different areas. We also came up with some programmes in mathematics, for instance. The first master’s programme in mathematics here in The Gambia was done during my time. Some of them graduated to get their master’s and PhDs. Some are now heads of department or coordinators of the master’s programme. Some are deans now. Deans of ICT. I encouraged many people to go for education. I encouraged especially those who wanted to throw in the towel. They had no right to throw in the towel. There might be hurdles, but for The Gambia and for children yet unborn, they needed to stand up and face the realities, and a good number of them did that. I’m very happy that I see some of them who can now perform far better than me… We also have for the first time in the history of this country a plagiarism software that will help lecturers. It will show whether you copied from somebody or not, and it will indicate the percentage that you copied and tell you the source you copied it from.  

And what were some of your key failures?

Sometimes it’s the challenges dealing with your desire to serve. Sometimes there will be misunderstandings with the staff, and people will not understand were you are heading to. They will assume. They won’t understand that people are having different upbringing, different mindset. Those were some of the challenges. I don’t want to see people going on strike, and having challenges for the basic things. These were some of the things that really, maybe, were some of the challenges that I would consider to some extent that maybe made my work a bit difficult at that time. But thank God we were able overcome all of them.

Many people who work under you praised you for being a hardworking and creative leader. What keeps you going?

It comes back to what I told you. For me, I worship God through this service. If people are happy, then I am happy and my Creator will be happy. My existence is meaningless if I am not able to positively change the live of my neighbour. And my neighbour is anybody created by God. That’s the assignment given to me by the Most High. That’s my conviction. I’m here to serve. Unless people feel it, then I would not have succeeded.

In 2017, you published the compelling book The Long Road to Democracy in The Gambia, an anthology of the political change that took place in 2016. What was your motivation?

I wanted to witness, to testify for history. I was watching what was unfolding until that moment I said what can I do so that people who will come after may understand what happened in this country? I said it can be captured in different ways. Then I came up with the idea with some other colleagues. Looking at the history that was unfolding, the idea was for the youths to use it as a reference point when people want to now refer to that dark history of The Gambia.

The higher education institutions like the UTG are bedeviled by a series of challenges not least decent libraries, costs, and perhaps even productivity. Can you outline your plans for the re-organisation of the current state of affairs? 

The strategy is very simple. We want to revamp the higher education sector, and for it to be fit for purpose. To do that, we want to have a paradigm shift, moving from the… not only abandoning it but creating another stream in addition to the traditional academic stream that some of us come from. [We want to] create another stream – the TVET engineering stream, because that’s what developed all the other countries such as Finland, Germany, South Korea, and even China now. South Korea, in 1990, their per capita income was US$90 only, but in 2022 is US$35,000. South Korea doesn’t have natural resources, but South Korea is the sixth leading exporting nation in the world. South Korea doesn’t have oil, but South Korea exports oil. You go to the Arab world, even Saudi, some of the storey buildings were built by South Koreans. All these things I mentioned are possible because of TVET, and the mindset. Frederick Douglas said that education means emancipation. It means light and liberty. It gives you the chance to liberate yourself, to take charge of your destiny. China is now number two in the world, and they’ve given themselves latest 2035 to be number one, ahead of America! It’s the investment in education, and the believe that they can do it. And that’s what I see in the higher education sector, and that’s why now we are trying to roll out the TVET streams, having in each region multi-purpose TVET centres.

For any social structure in any country to develop, individuals must be equipped with relevant skills and knowledge. What other role do you think TVET can play in the economic advancement of The Gambia?

We intend to establish a TVET centre in Kuntaur, and in Sapu. And you know what Sapu represents, the symbolism of Sapu. We are going to have an agribusiness. We want to train the youths to go on hands-on agriculture. Not theoretical. From the classroom to the farm, 24/7. Fresh water available there, year-round. So, you don’t have to depend on the rain. Throughout the year you can have agriculture. There too, not only would we be having horticulture, but even animal husbandry and mechanisation of agriculture because a TVET centre should also produce the agricultural tools for the farmers. So, they will now produce what they eat at that centre, sell what they would’ve produced, and the money they generate to run the centre. There will also be an entrepreneurship component embedded in whatever they do. When they graduate, they should not be waiting for government or private sector to employ them, they can employ themselves. Education must be fit for purpose. We are in 2022. Fifty-seven good years of independence, and we are struggling for the most basic things. We import the most basic things. You need certain services, but the technicians doing that service are not Gambians. And that’s why we are suffering from the rural-urban migration.  We also want to produce home-grown engineers. We are yet to produce one single homegrown engineer in this country. The only few engineers we have were trained outside.

The government’s announcement of a student loan scheme for some of the country’s needy students has been welcomed in many quarters. But some are concerned that it’s payment method may overburden and derail the self-actualisation of many in a country where unemployment remains quite high.

As I am talking to you, at the UTG, the majority of the students are sponsored by The Gambia government, according to the data. The majority are sponsored by MOHERST, and the others by MoBSE, and some parastatals. All put together, it’s more than half of the student population at the UTG. We spend millions on scholarships. But even with that, there are some students who are still struggling to get sponsors even though they have scholarships. In general, most of the times, we give priority to those with nine, eight and seven credits. These are the people who are given the priority. Sixty-five percent of all those who are given scholarships must be from STEM, medicine, and agriculture. For instance, if you are accepted at the School of Medicine, most of the time if you come here it’s hands down, you automatically get the scholarship. Also, if you are coming from the STEM area and you have these good grades, you will get the scholarship, most of the time. The priority is given to those people. The other part, the humanities and the social sciences and so forth get the rest. But the interesting part of it, those coming from the humanities and the social sciences form the majority of those making the request. But the policy is STEM. I need you to understand that even with that effort that the government has done, there are still a good number of people out there who are still struggling for sponsorship, [and that’s why] we are thinking that we should come up with another mechanism to expand. Every year we pay millions for scholarships, and next year we have to go for millions again to pay for people. Can we now have another alternative where we would still maintain the scholarship for excellence? If you want your parents to relax, work hard and the state will give you scholarship. That’s for excellence. The rest, now we will give them loans. But let people not think that we give them monies to go and marry second wives or whatever. That will not happen. There will be different approaches like the scholarships where we pay to the institution once you are identified. But the objective is not to bother them with payment while they are studying. Once you are done with your studies, maybe after two or five years, tentatively, you have to pay. There will be another set of criteria for the loans which is different from that of the scholarship. We will not be able to cater for everybody, but what is important is the state coming to assist more people to have access.

Will the loans be interest free?

That’s our position. The stakeholders will determine. We will bring all the student leaders, the National Assembly, private sector, civil society, donors, and the finance ministry all will be part of that roundtable discussion to look at what we have proposed.

Can you understand why some commentators feel that this loan scheme, no matter how good it looks, will have the average Gambian in another chokehold?

Yeah, but then you will agree with me the same person is also going to the banks and taking a loan. Not so? Here, what we are saying is, either we decide not to do that, and people continue suffering and a good number of people not having access to tertiary and higher education, or we do that and we come up with mechanism. The objective is not to make people suffer. We are not saying that once you start working, you pay everything that same month, or that same year. It’s the gesture. Even if you are to pay 10 dalasis until you finish is better than not paying at all. When you look at it, the strategy is… maybe, we are not saying and I am clarifying it now, it will serve as a revolving fund. We give money to Alagie, and Alagie has finished and after two or three years he has started paying, the money that we are getting from Alagie, we use that to give it to Fatou, Demba, and Pateh. But this thing will have to go through the National Assembly. This are public funds. Make no mistake. 

Thank you!

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