Ambitious higher education reform plans for Africa’s newest nation

Academics and policy-makers have produced a vision for higher education in South Sudan, which achieved independence from Sudan last July to become Africa’s newest state.

Problems facing universities have been identified, reform initiatives launched and possible ways to upgrade universities recommended.

Higher education in South Sudan

South Sudan has nine public universities, but only five of them are fully operational and the other four are new and do not yet have any students. When the country declared independence on 9 July 2011, it also inherited 16 private universities. The oldest three public institutions – the University of Juba, Bahr el Ghazel University and Upper Nile University – had been operating in North Sudan for 20 years because of civil war in South Sudan. They have now been repatriated to their original campuses in the south.

“I appeal to you all, both academic staff and administrators of our public universities, to put your minds together and come up with well-studied recommendations and plans for strengthening our institutions, which must become the pillars of nation-building,” President Salva Kiir Mayardit said at an independence celebration at the University of Juba.

He also said: “Universities are the nucleus of national development; no country can prosper without strong institutions of higher education.”

In response, the think-tank Academics and Researchers Forum for Development (ARFD), in collaboration with the Ministry of Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology, organised a conference in November last year.

Its preliminary recommendations could be considered an important milestone in the development of higher education policy for South Sudan.

Problems facing universities

Dhieu Mathok Diing Wol, secretary for research and publication for the ARFD in Juba, told University World News that higher education in South Sudan was previously the responsibility of the Sudan government in Khartoum. After independence, the government of the Republic of South Sudan had to start from scratch.

Speaking to University World News Charles Bakheit, former secretary for academic affairs at the University of Juba, said the three oldest universities were facing an acute shortage of qualified staff, and lacked basic infrastructure. They have inadequate office space, lecture halls, libraries, laboratories, workshops and computing facilities.

Bakheit explained that these problems had been precipitated by two main factors.

First, northern Sudanese academics, who constituted the majority of staff, did not relocate from the north with the universities (northern students did not either). Second, the Sudan government impounded all properties of the three universities, depriving them of assets and property they had accumulated while located in Khartoum.

John Apuruo Akec, vice-chancellor of University of Northern Bahr El Ghazal and chair of the ARFD, told University World News that academic and technical staff capacity was down by 65% as a result of losing northern staff, many of whom have been snapped up by the newly established University of Bahari in Khartoum.

His university partially opened in October 2011, but will not be fully operational until problems of staffing, student and staff accommodation, and labs and lecture halls are resolved. This will take time and could cause political crisis if students unions are not convinced to be patient.

Akec said the higher education ministry also lacked supporting institutions and a legal framework that would enable it to discharge its duties effectively.

New reform initiatives

The new ministry is developing policies, and the three oldest universities are reviewing and upgrading all their programmes to meet the needs and aspirations of the new nation, Charles Bakheit indicated.

He said that South Sudan recently approved a new salary structure for university staff, which is better than what was before. Hopefully, higher salaries would entice some staff in the north to return to the university, as none of them were dismissed.

Akec cautiously welcomed the improved pay structure for academics: “It is higher than that for those of the north. For example, a professor in Sudan receives an average of SDG3,000 (about US$700) monthly at the current rate. In the south a full professor will receive SSP8,000 (or US$2,000).

“However, South Sudan is five times more expensive than the north as a result of high food and fuel prices. It is a good gesture, nevertheless.”

The ARFD’s Dhieu Mathok Diing Wol said the ministry was working hard to formulate laws and regulations for the smooth running of institutions. There were other important projects under way, including strategies to manage the five universities created by the Khartoum government, which did not have the capacity to deliver good quality higher education.

Also Dr Peter Adwok, the higher education minister, had suspended more than 30 private universities in South Sudan. Most were not licensed as higher education institutions, while some were licensed as companies but did not have the academic capacity to award degrees. Their situation would be reviewed after a related act was passed in parliament.

Wol said the ministry also intended to revise the policies pursued by Khartoum including the Student Support Fund, appointment and reward of lecturers and what the minister had called ‘election universities’ such as the universities of Northern Bahr el Ghazal, Western Equatoria, Torit, Bantiu and Alxadanderia Tonj Branch.

John Apuruo Akec said Minister Adwok had announced his plan to give priority in funding to the five operating universities of Juba, Upper Nile, Bahr El Ghazal, Rumbek and Dr John Garang. The new universities would be treated as ‘projects’ to be executed by vice-chancellors with skeleton staff.

On the international side, USAID has launched a US$1.4 million initiative to boost higher education in the field of agriculture. The partnership initiative – including the University of Juba, Catholic University of Sudan and higher education institutions in Virginia – was outlined last September in the USAID magazine Frontlines.

The US-South Sudan partnership aims to produce high quality graduates to assist in agricultural development, generate knowledge through research to address agriculture and natural resource management needs, and create a university-based outreach programme that disseminates knowledge and builds the skills of South Sudanese farmers and agribusinesses.

Ways to upgrade and reform higher education

Charles Bakheit suggested a number of steps to advance higher education.

South Sudan should invest massively in education generally and upgrading universities in particular. It should postpone opening other universities and instead concentrate on building the infrastructure of the five already operating, to bring them up to international standard.

The government should improve the conditions of service of academics to attract local and foreign staff, said Bakheit. Research should be encouraged in the top universities, and for optimal usage they could share expensive research equipment and facilities. The issue of student food and accommodation would need to be resolved expeditiously.

Wol said the ministry had developed a five-year US$2 billion plan to upgrade universities, within which institutions were expected to become autonomous.

Administrative autonomy would include universities electing their own vice-chancellors, deans and other leaders. In terms of financial autonomy, universities would be expected to finance their activities with reduced government support after 10 years.

Akec, however, indicated that there was still no consensus on the vision for higher education in terms of shrinking the number of institutions and concentrating on the few already established, or expanding to produce the human resources the country needs.

“Without a smart strategy and speedy action, the challenges are too great and the road ahead for higher education in South Sudan is fraught with many traps and pitfalls,” said Akec. “President Salva Kiir has resolved to give education the highest priority in his new term of office. Hopefully that will translate into an improved funding allocation.

“Without taking good care of higher education, the future is dim for the new nation. So we will wait and see if the words of politicians will translate into deeds,” Akec concluded.