SOUTH SUDAN: Reforming universities in a new state

In an effort to build the emerging independent state of South Sudan on a solid foundation, the government has launched a roadmap in which reforming the country's higher education sector features prominently. Due to open for classes in mid-May, universities in what is one of the world's least developed nations face a host of challenges.

South Sudan will officially declare full independence on 9 July, becoming Africa's 54th state. This is after the people of southern Sudan voted overwhelmingly for secession from the north in an internationally monitored referendum in January. The 2005 peace deal between north and south had included provision for such a referendum after five years.

South Sudan, which is about the size of France, will have nine public universities. But only five of them are functioning, with the remaining four being newly instituted and having neither infrastructure nor capacity to admit students in the near future.

This is according to John Akec, Vice-chancellor of the University of Northern Bahr El-Ghazal in South Sudan, in an article titled 'Serious challenges await higher education in post-referendum South Sudan', published last month on the website of the Makol Ariik Development Foundation, (whose slogan is 'Educate Southern Sudanese to Educate Themselves').

The country also has 16 private universities but they are not accredited because they have not met set standards.

Three of the five functioning public institutions - the universities of Juba, Northern Bahr El-Ghazal and Upper Nile - moved their operations to Khartoum in the north from the late 1980s due to civil war in the south. Their December 2010 relocation to Southern Sudan, as reported previously in University World News, brought home some 3,500 southern Sudanese students, staff and their families.

Between them, the functioning five southern universities host over 25,000 regular students, about 18,000 of whom study at the University of Juba. Of the total student population, approximately 12,000 are from northern Sudan. And the number of northern academics averages 65% across all universities, meaning the majority of colleges and schools in southern universities are staffed by academics from the north.

Reports presented by the vice-chancellors at a February conference organised by the new Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research indicated that local universities suffer from acute lack of infrastructure, shortages of staff, under-funding and high dependency on academic staff from the north.

In fact, universities were due to open for classes in April but the ministry moved the opening date to mid-May given the need to deal with problems of lack of accommodation for students, lack of funds and shortage of lecturers.

The country's Vice President Riek Machar Teny outlined the roadmap for development of the newborn nation state at the founding conference of the South Sudan Academics Forum for Development, or SSAFD, which was held at the South Sudan Hotel in Juba from 22-23 February and was attended by professors and lecturers from universities across the region.

Northern Bahr El Ghazal Vice-chancellor Akec, who is also chair of the SSAFD provisional committee, explained that it is a think tank and advocacy group formed by South Sudan academics and researchers during the conference, as a first step towards reforming the higher education sector.

Among other things, SSAFD will focus on fostering a culture of intellectual innovation, creativity and knowledge generation among South Sudanese academics and researchers, Akec explained.

It also intends to contribute to professional and institutional capacity building, and promote mutually beneficial partnerships with government, industry, civil society organisations and other institutions in South Sudan and abroad with similar interest and aims.

The South Sudan government has identified about 60 objectives to be achieved in the process of new state-building. Reforming the higher education sector features prominently, as 60% of current employees in South Sudan have no skills. To tackle this challenge, the government will establish research institutions and develop a high quality school curriculum in the emerging independent state.

In fact, the government has outlined a wide range of reform initiatives for implementation. There are also plans to set up a legal framework via a higher education bill, which will regulate public and private higher education institutions.

The government intends to establish a Strategic Planning Council including a Higher Education Council, which will incorporate academics from various specialisations to serve as a think-tank for the new state.

In addition, academics will participate in the South Sudan 2011 Taskforce, with particular focus on issues needing scientific research in order to guide government's decision-making processes.

The government also plans to set up the South Sudan Research Council, or SSRC. The research council will be responsible for setting standards and priorities, and regulating, evaluating, validating and monitoring the research projects and activities of research and academic institutions.

To improve the quality of education in the country's higher education institutions and attract highly qualified teaching staff, the government has also announced plans to improve pay structures at southern universities and raise the level of funding.

Eltayeb Mohamed Abdelgadir, a researcher at Sudan's Agricultural Research Corporation, welcomed the new developments, telling University World News: "The post-conflict higher education reform programmes must be accompanied by action, monitoring and evaluating plans for proper and efficient implementation."

Higher education reform should focus on developing curricula to reflect the needs of society, building staff capacity, producing textbooks and resource materials, policy mainstreaming and institutionalisation, promoting entrepreneurial and professional skills, facilitating distance learning and creating partnerships with regional and international universities.

"Universities must establish specific programmes for developing and sustaining a knowledge-based economy, with the help of local education and business communities along with South Sudan's academic diaspora," Abdelgadir concluded.

South Sudan has applied to join the East Africa Community, or EAC, whose other members are Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi, and is encouraging EAC investors to establish private universities by offering incentives, including land. Mt Kenya University in Thika, Kenya, might open a campus in Juba.

Meanwhile in northern Sudan, on 24 March, the Council of Ministers endorsed plans to set up a new university, to be called the University of Khartoum North. The new university will provide education for students from the north who are currently registered at southern universities. It will also provide employment opportunities for staff hitherto employed by southern universities.