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The uncertain future of higher education in South Sudan

Deng Garang
As South Sudan approaches the first anniversary of its independence, the citizens should steer public debate towards pressing issues which have slipped off the public radar. In particular, the education system is a…
8.07.2012  |  Juba
Riak Maker, a Public Administration student at the University of Juba, during an anti-corruption rally in Juba, June 11.
Riak Maker, a Public Administration student at the University of Juba, during an anti-corruption rally in Juba, June 11.

Recent public debate in South Sudan has centred on whether government money has been lost or stolen. But at the end of the day, the difference between lost and stolen is beside the point. The fact is: It is gone. Instead, we should support our government\'s bid to recover these much-needed funds. As we approach the first anniversary of our independence, we should steer the debate towards other pressing issues which have slipped off the public radar. In particular, our education system is a top priority.

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Education must be ranked highly if our nascent nation is to catch up with neighbouring countries that achieved independence about half a century ago. Civil strife swept away all our infrastructure and now, in our peaceful times, we should quickly and carefully rebuild our nation. Our higher education is shameful and the challenges facing us are immense.

We should not just feel proud when we send students on scholarships, but we should also feel ashamed of our failing university system. Part of our brave struggle for independence was sparked by our desire for better education and more development across the board. We should not forget that underlying goal -- it would be wrong to close universities on the eve of independence.

Citizens must be informed of their duties so they can effectively participate in nation-building. They need human rights and opportunities. Given South Sudan’s low levels of qualified employees, it would be wrong to close down our public institutions of higher learning.

Ethnic violence closes university

At first glance it seems logical: When a tribal conflict erupted in the University of Juba earlier this year, the government was forced to close it down. Temporary closure of an institution following violence is a justified way of preventing escalation. But the problem with the Juba case is that the closure lasts too long. Authorities are using the violence as a pretext to shelve an institution which they are no longer funding properly.

Looking back to 2011, limited human resources, lecture halls and accommodation facilities led to the closure of universities. They would not have reopened if students had not pressurised the administration with petitions and protest. Their actions sparked a conditional reopening. That ‘conditional’ gives officials a pretext to close the university at any moment -- fuelling the suspicion that the university administration actually aims to keep the institution closed.

Lack of facilities

University hostels are overfilled and cannot accommodate the 1,400 enrolled scholars. There is also a shortage of lecture halls: there are not enough for each class, meaning that classes operate in shifts. Meanwhile, the dining hall does not have enough space, nor food for all students. In general, university is an overcrowded and tense place.

Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes for these problems. One oft cited solution is to close the university for some years to grant it time to improve its infrastructure. But this popular suggestion is misguided. Closing institutions without plans is nothing short of a waste of time: Facilities do not grow out of nothing -- they need to be planned, and paid for.

The only practical remedy is to recall the experience of two decades of civil war. Schools were operational during wartime and despite their pressing shortages, the quality of education was not badly affected. Many bush-learners are as competent as their counterparts who learnt in foreign countries.

During this era, the University of Juba operated without hostels or catering -- yet many people completed their studies and are now senior government officials. A year after independence, we should not be thinking about closing the university just because of a lack accommodation or food.

The Minister of Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology’s recent plan that students will pay their own tuition fees is reasonable. However, it should be carefully scrutinised. On the one hand, free higher education is being abused. Some students spend longer than recommended at university and some government officials squander students’ bursaries and students are not paid until they protest. We need to end these opportunities for abusing the system.

Private universities closed

Private institutions of higher learning became an alternative for students after public universities veered off course. Many students suffered following the closure of technical colleges (of Medicine, Health Sciences and Veterinary Medicine) in the universities of Upper Nile and Bahr el-Ghazal. They had to shift to other careers or begin afresh by enrolling in the private sector.

But officials abruptly decided to close all private universities, citing low standards. Some academics approved of this decision, arguing that in the 1960s East African countries were only left with one university, a plan designed to foster quality. They seek to apply the same logic to South Sudan now. But this argument ignores the gaping differences between Africa in the 1960s and Africa today. We live in an era where there are luxury cars, salaries for civil servants and comparatively good facilities compared to the past. We are now half a century on and the debate needs to catch up.

Setting South Sudan’s priorities

South Sudan has to redefine higher education as priority. Insufficient higher education funding meant that no universities operated in 2011. The young nation is awash with austerity measures and its universities still lack facilities. Improvement can only happen when new sources of revenue are provided. Right now, government funds only cover the regular pay of teaching staff.

Meanwhile, officials plan to create more counties, which would necessitate more commissioners, executive directors, administrators and local government employees. The question is whether we should pay for this new level of bureaucracy or strengthen our existing institutions: Do we really want to close our universities and instead pay for more high-level civil servants?

Six and half years since the establishment of the South Sudanese government, there is still a lack of clarity about its education system. Most primary schools still use foreign syllabi and primary and secondary school examinations are still not centralised. The anniversary of our independence is a time for policy making. The independence celebrations should not be a time for drinking and dancing -- rather we should reflect on the achievements and failures of the previous year, so we take better decisions in the future.