Need for a new higher education focus on innovation and creativity

Scientific research is one of the key driving factors for a diversified, strong economy in any country. Under the former regime in Libya, research and higher education suffered from negligence, corruption and lack of political commitment and reform.

Higher education in the country faces major challenges. These include increasing demands for improvements, and raising the quality of graduates and their career prospects.

There are also problems with accreditation and the quality of education institutions and programmes, not to mention the financing and governance of institutions. Another major challenge to Libya’s education sector is the lack of effective IT infrastructure, and the lack of scholarly activities and research throughout the sector.

Libya’s ability to build a strong and diversified economy will depend on its commitment to innovation, creativity and commercialisation within the higher education and research sector.

Higher education characteristics

The status of this sector in Libya could be characterised as follows:

First, scientific research and development funding is very scarce, standing at less than 0.05% of gross domestic product or US$120 million – that is just US$20 spent on scientific research and development per person in Libya, according to government data.

Furthermore, there is no real commitment to research in Libyan universities and the country does not benefit from generous international grants in the fields of scientific and social research because of the absence of any cohesive vision for the sector.

Elsewhere, the private sector usually plays an integral role in higher education and research sector through partnerships, funding and collaborative projects. However, Libya has no effective, responsible private sector able and willing to do this.

Second, human resources in the field of research and development are insufficient and mismanaged. In addition, the education, higher education and scientific research sectors are negative, traditional learning environments, where creativity and innovation are almost non-existent among staff and students.

The education sector in Libya lost its purpose when the focus on the end product of the education process was lost. That led to the lack of a fully qualified and skillfully equipped university graduate population.

Students were never the focus of the learning process; they have become an increasingly passive element. As a consequence, there is a lack of skilled graduates who possess the knowledge and skills required by the labour market, and this had impacted negatively both on Libya’s research base and its industrial competitiveness.

Another negative factor is the lack of commitment to research by qualified researchers despite studying at universities abroad. For example, the research output within the school of medicine at Tripoli University is 1.4 papers per 100 academic staff, according to a study conducted by Benghazi University and Manchester Metropolitan University.

Academic staff in Libyan universities should be offered incentives and have recognition for their research. Also, the teaching load for academics needs to be dramatically reduced. Furthermore, the contractual duties of academics should put emphasis on research and scholarly activities as part of their job description.

According to government data, research and other scholarly activities account for less than 5% of academics’ duties at Libyan universities. In developed economies they account for at least 33%.

Third, like most sectors Libya’s higher education and research sector suffers from organisational problems. The sector lacks cooperation and communication between its various institutions. In addition, there is a lack of networking mechanisms, such as forums and conferences that could link the community.

Moreover, bureaucratic procedures hinder the enthusiasm of researchers, as does the lack of incentives for individuals who show initiative.

Fourth, the sector lacks the necessary IT infrastructure and resources to produce substantial output. There are no marketing and scientific publication strategies for sharing findings and good practice with the rest of the research community, either regionally or internationally.

Primary and secondary education is compulsory in Libya, which has led to increased interest in attending universities and higher education institutions. According to government data, the number of Libyans attending university went from 33 students in 1956 to 279,150 students in 2008. The number is expected to exceed the half-million mark by 2025.

This rise in demand for university places needs to be met with well-planned strategies for public and private investments in the sector.

The sector requires innovative mechanisms to encourage entrepreneurism to enable graduates and researchers to start their own businesses based on their creative ideas and research.

Ways forward

Libya can meet the challenges in the higher education and scientific research sector.

To do so, a well-planned medium- to long-term strategy is required. Developments need to include strengthening facilities in parallel with human resource development. The infrastructure for e-learning and ICT education will require significant investments in order to develop and help enhance the performance of the sector.

In addition, the sector will require closer collaboration with institutions in other countries to achieve excellent quality assurance systems and accreditation of educational programmes.

Most importantly, there is an urgent need for a commitment from Libya’s new leaders towards the sector. Funding needs to increase dramatically. There is also an urgent need for robust measures to tackle corruption and financial waste in the sector.

Academic freedom was non-existent in Libya for decades. Censorship had a disastrous impact on the country’s higher education and research sector. Academic freedom for staff and students should be encouraged and protected, along with the sharing of good practices.

Finally, with students’ increased awareness and their aspirations for better opportunities, the education sector in Libya is set to be more student-focused so that it can meet the market demand for skilled graduates.

Libya’s higher education and research sector needs to be one of creativity and innovation, where students and staff are encouraged to develop in new directions not previously encouraged.

* Mohamed Eljarh is a UK-based Libyan academic researcher and political and social development activist. He is from Tobruk in Eastern Libya. Email: Follow him on Twitter: @Eljarh. This is an edited version of an article that was first published in the Libya Herald.