By Dr Lam Akol
December 1, 2011 (SSNA) — A presentation by this author to the Conference on Higher Education in South Sudan held on 14-15 November 2011 in Juba , outlined the function of tertiary education and its requirements, concluded by raising certain policy issues that needed to be addressed in order to revamp higher education and recommended that it will serve the best interest of this country that at this stage our country consolidates the current three universities. The organizer of the conference did not like this recommendation and claimed that the author was the only one who held that view. How he arrived at that conclusion, when no vote was taken is known to him alone. That is not even an issue, what mattered was whether the recommendation was sound or not. Since then a number of academicians worth the mettle who supported this point of view made their opinions known on the internet.
In audience in that conference was a highly educated group and therefore certain issues were taken for granted not requiring explanation. The discussion that followed showed that this assumption was somewhat misplaced. Furthermore, the debate has now gone to the newspapers; a situation demanding putting ideas in a manner that will be easily understood by all. The purpose of this paper therefore is to elucidate further the reasons behind the recommendation in the said paper.
The Function and Running Tertiary Education
In a nutshell, the function of higher education is to provide merit-based knowledge and advanced skills critical to the country’s socio-economic development. This is attained through efficient education and research. Improved and accessible tertiary education and effective national innovations systems can help a developing country progress toward sustainable achievements in the Millennium Development Goals, particularly those goals related to all levels of education, health, and gender equity.
A new country like South Sudan must start on the correct footing by striving to promote more efficient tertiary education institutions that innovate and respond positively to meaningful performance-based allocation of resources and accountability systems.
To fulfil its function, higher education (in the case of South Sudan today, read universities) the inputs must be of good quality so as to be able to produce the desired output. In this case, you must have students well-grounded in general education, qualified teaching staff and a good environment (adequate facilities, etc.) for the educational process. These are the three elements of higher education that must be taken care of in the planning and execution of policies on higher education. Thus, must be the focus of any debate on the matter.
A lot has been said on whether our universities should go for elite or mass education. If by mass education is meant a situation where the standard of the graduate is compromised in favour of numbers, then we are not talking the same language. University education is by its very nature special and of quality; call it elitist or otherwise that is what it is. Hence, it is not haphazard that universities set minimum admission requirements for students, minimum qualifications for the teaching staff and standard facilities for the educational environment. These are meant to meet the objective of higher education; a qualified graduate and high quality research.
In the same vein, all positions of University administration naturally have set qualifications. A head of department must have spent a known minimum number of years in the department concerned, so is the case for a Dean of faculty or the Vice Chancellor. In particular, a Vice Chancellor must be a Professor who has published a set number of papers in reputed journals and had held a number of administrative positions in the university (Dean, Head of Department, etc.). Without that you do not qualify to compete for the position; election or no election. The question of being young or old does not arise here. Those who raise eye-brows should be reminded that this is the same practice in public offices. Before any election is conducted, candidates must satisfy set requirements without which they do not qualify and are not allowed to compete. For instance, to be an eligible candidate for the position of the President of the Republic or Governor of a State one must be 40 years or older. This is a condition set by our Constitution. A young man/woman of 40 or an old person of 75 years may compete for such a position, whereas a 39-year old fellow is barred out. This will not be categorized as discrimination or blocking the young out. Why should we be lax when it concerns such a sensitive place such as a university? The point being made here is that any public office, not least of all university positions, must have minimum requirements. These could be related to academic qualifications, experience, age, etc. The University Charter and its regulations must specify the minimum requirements to hold any office in the university. Again, the overarching purpose is to produce good graduates and quality research.
The Status of South Sudan Universities:
USAID carried out a comprehensive survey on the state of our universities as part of a research on capacity building in South Sudan . It revealed that only three universities were able to satisfy a reasonable number of the set criteria. These are the universities of Juba, Upper Nile and Bahr El Ghazal. Even these are beset by many problems. Dr Charles Bakhiet who is a founding staff member of the University of Juba and was the Academic Secretary of the University from 1985 to 1990 affirmed:
“However, it is public knowledge that the current three southern universities are under-staffed, under-funded and lack adequate infrastructure. Moreover, we do not have enough well-equipped secondary schools in the south to feed the current three universities. In the immediate post conflict era, the priority of GOSS in this education sector must therefore be, first and foremost, to consolidate the present universities by building their infrastructure, investing in their staff development programs, and improving their teaching and research capabilities. Moreover, once the intakes from northern schools are gradually phased out in these universities, there will be more places created for southern secondary school leavers who qualify for higher education.”.
He proceeded to enumerate what the Government of South Sudan needs to immediately embark on as:
1. initiation of constructions and rehabilitation of their infrastructure;
2. the provision of needed equipment;
3. an aggressive staff development programme, recruitment of competent academic staff,
4. a thorough review of the study programs;
5. reviewing the conditions of service for the academic staff to be made more attractive with ample opportunities for research, so that these institutions serve as a hub not solely for dissemination of knowledge but also for knowledge production.
All these will surely be at a considerable cost which the paltry budget of the Ministry of Higher Education can never meet in a year or two.
Are more public universities necessary?
On the issue of whether to open or not to open more public universities, Dr Bakhiet stated:
“To be more specific, the GOSS will require substantial financial resources to provide the badly needed infrastructure for the three universities that would transform them into modern universities, with access to new technologies. For instance, the Bilinyang campus for University of Juba, is a huge project which will require millions of dollars to construct. To the best of my knowledge, neither Bahr el Ghazel University nor Upper Nile University has a decent campus, and each will need a properly and purposefully designed campus. While all these programs are crying for attention and resources, and the capacities of the present universities have still to be fully utilized, for the GOSS to consider establishing yet another public university in the immediate future will constitute a clear case of poor judgment. Putting the economy of scale to their advantage, each of the three universities can easily expand to accommodate between twenty to twenty-five thousand students, with an average annual intake of four to five thousand students.” .
Other places in higher education can be made available through the government arranging scholarships for our students to study abroad making use of the current environment of international good will towards the Republic of South Sudan. We had a similar experience following the signing of the Addis Ababa Agreement where, since 1974, the Egyptian tertiary education was admitting around 300 Southerners every year, thanks to the Egyptian government. This figure was close to ten times the rate of admission of Southerners into the Sudanese higher education by then. Many of our professionals and politicians today are the beneficiaries of that arrangement.
Private tertiary education is also another area where some qualified South Sudan students could be admitted. However, these institutions need to be streamlined to suit our requirements and meet strict accreditation conditions that must be put in place to ensure that they keep high standards in terms of resources, qualified staff and adequate facilities.
This conclusion does not rule out the fact that in future the number of universities may increase gradually based on a real need, feasibility studies and availability of funds. There can be no place for brief-case universities; we must avoid the experience of Sudan in that respect. The argument that not having a university in each State in South Sudan is “social injustice” is mere demagoguery meant to score political mileage. Most of us did not study in universities near our homes. Social justice is associated with catering for the basic needs of the people. A travesty of a university in one’s homestead that produces semi-illiterate graduates is the greatest disservice to that community. Communities will clamour for having all kinds of things including universities. It is our role as intellectuals to tell them what is possible now, tomorrow or not possible at all. It makes more sense for these communities to strengthen their schools so as to be able to compete better for university entrance. After all, universities, wherever they are, admit students from all over the country. Still, if need be to cater for the lack of qualified personnel in some States of the country, a special admission system similar to the arrangement made with the University of Khartoum in 1969 by the then Minister of Southern Affairs, the late Joseph Garang, or that of the least developed States in Sudan from the 1990s may be considered. In all these cases, the prospective student must satisfy the minimum admission requirements. This is the bottom line. Universities used to grow naturally from colleges to university colleges and finally to fully fledged university.
Review of Higher Education
The independence of South Sudan is a golden opportunity for the government to review higher education in the country with a view for meaningful reform of the system. There are good ideas in this respect [5,6]. The review must carry out a SWOT analysis of the current situation of higher education so as to be able to prescribe and execute the required solutions. It must also include looking into establishing a technical and technological stream separate and parallel from the academic system of education right from the primary level to the tertiary level. The system must be so designed that a graduate at each level will be useful in the job market as craftsmen and technicians. In order to achieve meaningful development there are internationally accepted minimum ratios of craftsmen/technicians and technicians/professionals that must be maintained in a given country at a given level of development or rather underdevelopment. This is not the case now in our country, and was the purpose of introducing technical education in the late 1950s and for proposing the new stream now.
The technical education in Sudan was killed by two policy mistakes that led the community to discourage their children from this type of education. First, the students in the technical schools then were not afforded ample opportunities to study beyond the secondary level. The only available tertiary level was one Khartoum Senior Trade and one Khartoum Technical Institute (KTI), also known as Khartoum Polytechnic. Second, the pay was less than what their counterparts in the academic stream were getting and the pay scale for the technical school graduates did go beyond group 7 at that time, whereas those from the academic stream could advance up to the end of the civil service scale (group 1). These grave mistakes must be avoided if we are to change the negative attitude of the community towards technical education. Hence, the pay scale of these graduates must be as good as, if not better than, their academic stream counterparts. Given today’s level of development, technical education in the old sense is no longer sufficient. Therefore, technical and technological education must go hand in hand. If this stream begins to be seen as promising and lucrative, it will attract bright students and hence will be competitive.
To be specific, the review of the higher education should consider the following areas among others:
The role of higher education in socio-economic development cannot be overemphasised. However, given the many competing demands over limited resources, the Government of the Republic of South Sudan is well advised to carry out a review of higher education, including introducing research centres. The review is to achieve the desired reform in the educational system avoiding the mistakes of the past including opening universities that have not undergone thorough feasibility studies. Realities on the ground today clearly point out that the way forward is consolidation of the resources available for the reconstruction and staffing the current three universities to an acceptable level. Then in the future as more resources become available and real demand arises, gradual and studied increase in public universities may be considered. Private education that satisfies rigorous conditions for accreditation can be allowed at this stage to absorb some of the qualified students without expense from national budget.
The Government has to make use of the current good will of the donor community to urge them to include support for higher education in terms of funds, material, transfer of technology and scholarships in their aid assistance.
The Author is the former Sudanese Foreign Affairs Minister and Chairman of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement for Democratic Change (SPLM-DC).