HARBEL, Margibi – Harbel College has abandoned its decision to increase student fees this semester after Margibi’s second district representative, Ivar Jones, demanded that the administration returns to the status quo.
The college had announced an increment in fees from US$90 and US$70 for incoming and existing students studying science and engineering courses to US$130 and US$105, respectively. The college also increased fees for incoming and existing students in non-science and engineering courses from US$70 and US$50 to US$105 and US$85, respectively.
The changes were announced after President George Weah had declared all undergraduate studies tuition free at public universities and colleges across the country. Students of the college had paid US$3.00 per credit hour prior to the president’s pronouncement.
The college president, Syrulwa Somah, said the increment was meant to keep up with students’ demand for quality and standard. Somah said in previous semesters where students paid US$10 for physical education t-shirts, for example, they rejected the quality of t-shirts and the standard of painting it had. For this semester, he said the administration had increased the cost of the t-shirts by US$5, in order to procure a higher quality of t-shirt and painting.
“The first one didn’t have the symbol of the college and we used paint to paint that T-shirt. It began to fail and when they began to wash it, because of the thickness of the paint, it started tearing and the students didn’t like that. So, we needed something better – good quality,” he explained.
“We have other schools, universities and colleges that come here and play our college and our students wanted to look presentable so then, we stepped it up. That’s how come the price went up. If you need something that is quality, you have to pay.”
He said the administration also took a decision to increase the cost of student identification cards by an additional US$5 to improve the quality because the students had complained that previous cards did not last for more than one semester. He said the administration had also planned to purchase its own printer and materials to make the I.D. cards so that students would start paying less for I.D. cards beginning the next semester.
Some critics said US$25 was an unreasonable amount to charge each science and engineering student for lab and field trips for a semester. But the president justified that the college does not own a bus to transport students for field trips. He added that in previous semesters when students were charged US$20, students complained of not being entertained or provided good refreshments because the school did not have an adequate allotment for such.
“Every college or university you go to, the money will not be the same. Science College is always high,” he also noted.
“If we had buses or have buses, then you say you going to transport your students. We don’t; we got three schools. Time for [an] internship, how do we get the students there? It means we got to rent buses, and when they give you the price, you want to run from here. This is why we charged the US$25 for science students, only.”
He said those who already have I.D. cards and t-shirts from previous semesters would be exempted from additional payments. He added: “So, to add the whole thing and say the college is charging this is disingenuous.”
The president said the advocacy against the slight increment was driven mostly by advocates who are not students of the college. He said most of the students attending the college supported the increase in fees.
Over the weekend, some lower Margibi youth launched a media campaign against Harbel College over its decision to increase the student fees. The individuals who raised the issue on social media and radio talk shows are not students of the college but said they were advocating against the increment because it undermined the free tuition pronouncement made by President George Weah for undergraduate studies in all government-run universities and colleges.
One of them, Christopher Wleh, who also works in the office of Rep. Ivar Jones, mentioned in one of his social media comments that the college’s president, Syrulwa Somah was “anti-pro-poor,” referencing Weah’s government slogan.
Forty-two students of the college also wrote a letter on Monday, January 21 appealing to the administration to reduce the fees, citing economic constraints.
“Dr. Somah, all most of the students are in [grief] about the high fees for this semester. In view of this communication, we are amenable for dialogue to enhance smooth education for the betterment of Harbel College, and mama Liberia at large,” the letter read.
Somah received the communication on the same day but said the group was illegitimate and he could not meet with them. He later accepted to meet with the students after they agreed to meet with him, not as members of the Concern Students of Harbel College.
At a meeting on Tuesday, Somah explained to the students the financial challenges the college faced and the reasons for the fee increase. The district coordinator for Rep. Jones, Emmanuel Johnnie, and other members of the college administration were also present at the meeting.
After listening to the students, the president announced an adjustment in the fees as follows: incoming and existing science and engineering students would pay US$115 and US$95, respectively, while other incoming and existing students would pay US$90 and US$70, respectively.
Somah told The Bush Chicken that his philosophy since 2015 has always been for a college education to become free in Liberia, as President Weah has declared. He said had no intention of undermining the president’s vision.
But Rep. Jones demanded that the administration eliminate all fee increments. He said the decision to increase fees was unilateral and was not done with the knowledge of the college’s board.
“Anything that is not done legally is not done at all. He should reverse to status quo by going by the old requirement that the students paid in the last semester,” Jones said.
The lawmaker said, for students who have already registered, their fees will be calculated and the difference will be carried forward for the following semester. Based on the lawmaker’s request, the college agreed to revert to its original schedule of fees.
He said the college was created to ease the financial burden of citizens and residents of lower Margibi who would have otherwise had to transport themselves to Monrovia on a daily basis to seek a college education.
Meanwhile, Somah has likened the college to a newborn baby that is physically and mentally challenged and given to him to care for. He said since the college was started in 2015, it continues to be underfunded because of the regional divisions among political leaders in the county.
“Our people have not united behind this college like other colleges and universities that are public. Look at Nimba, look at Grand Bassa and Bomi and other places; they are getting more money than Harbel College that is a senior college,” he said.
The president further justified that since 2016, when the college received its first allotment of US$250,000, the college’s budget has continued to fluctuate from US$400,000 to US$540,000.
In 2016/2017, he said the college received an allotment of US$546,250, but only US$504,363 was disbursed, most of which went towards salaries. At least US$41,800 was not received until the budget year elapsed.
Similarly, in 2017/2018, he said US$422,960 was allotted for the college, but the college received US$403,595, with US$19,300 outstanding, although the allotment had already been reduced by nearly US$100,000 from the previous year.
This year, he said the college’s allotment increased to US$540,028, but only the US$352,000 meant for salaries has been received. The US$188,000 meant for goods and services is still outstanding.
Harbel College was created in 2012 by an act of the legislature as a full degree-granting institution and started full operations in July 2016. Somah said up to date, the college does not have a full staff because of low funding.
The college’s administrative staff also still operates from a tight annex of the Harbel Multilateral High School, because its own recently completed campus lacks electricity. There is no faculty lounge or conference room.
Somah said it would require at least US$1.5 million or US$3.5 million for the college to operate at its full capacity.
Featured photo by Gbatemah Senah