Vice-chancellor struggles to open his new university

Dr John Apuru Akec wants to use universities to develop South Sudan, the world’s newest country, which became independent in July 2011. It is a noble and sensible goal. But first of all, the vice-chancellor will have to help make the nation’s higher education system work.

In 2010 Akec (54) was appointed vice-chancellor of the brand new University of Northern Bahr el Ghazal, or UNBEG. Less than a year later, and following a decades-long war, South Sudan achieved independence from Sudan, and his university found itself in the north-west of a new country.

But South Sudan’s university system has been in disarray ever since.

Last year the government closed more than 30 privately owned colleges and universities. An official report from the government said that the institutions – overcrowded and lacking instructors – did not meet official standards.

The same year ethnic violence erupted on the campus of the University of Juba, forcing administrators to close the country’s flagship higher education institution for weeks.

Most worryingly for Akec, though, is that UNBEG and three other planned universities still have not opened their doors to full-time students. Instead, the government has actually reduced his university’s funding, while he struggles to pull together courses and faculty.

Meanwhile, there is not enough space in South Sudan’s universities for all of the students who want a higher education.

Last year more than 11,000 students competed for 6,000 spots in the country’s five functional public universities: Dr John Garang Memorial University of Science and Technology in Bor; Upper Nile University in Malakal; the University of Rumbek; the University of Bahr el Ghazal to the south of Akec’s institution, in Wau; and the University of Juba.

When Akec took on his vice-chancellor position, he saw it as an opportunity to create a model university in South Sudan. And he had the chance to do it in Aweil, capital of Northern Bahr el Ghazal. The remote state in north-west South Sudan had been heavily affected during the war – it is now relatively close (about 100 kilometres) to the Sudanese border.

Akec wants to help transform the area with the university, educating students who could meet the immediate and long-term needs of a country starting from scratch. But now his main job as vice-chancellor is fighting just to get the doors to his university open.

He has not given up on his ambitions for UNBEG, though.


Akec followed a circuitous path into university administration. The son of a Catholic lay priest, he grew up travelling all over what was then southern Sudan.

A series of degrees followed, based on his evolving interests: a bachelors degree in applied physics and engineering from the University of Gezira in Sudan; a masters of science in systems engineering from the then University of Wales, Cardiff (now Cardiff University), and several other diplomas and certificates.

By the time he earned a doctorate in manufacturing and mechanical engineering from the UK’s University of Birmingham, he was living as a refugee in Britain, having escaped the war that tore his country apart.

In 2007, two years after the southern rebels and the Sudanese government had signed a comprehensive peace agreement, he came home to teach at the University of Juba.

Since his return he has not been shy about criticising the government of the new country, especially when it comes to policy on higher education.

He maintained his forthright style in an interview with University World News, when he discussed the challenges facing his university and higher education generally in South Sudan.

You have a wide-ranging academic background. What has guided your studies?

Akec’s CV reflects a journey of personal curiosity and professional development. For him, education has been about “developing new interests. Seeing the chance.”

Recognising the importance of technology to development, most of Akec’s interests have centred on computer-aided engineering. After his undergraduate studies in applied physics and electronics – where he graduated at the top of his class – he received a scholarship and moved to Britain in 1990 to pursue a diploma in electronic engineering.

Around that time the situation in Sudan “was really bad. There was a lot of persecution going on. I wrote to some guys and they said, ‘If you’re out of the country, stay’.”

Akec remained in the UK as a refugee, going on to get his masters in 1992 and doctorate in 1998.

Then, as he became more interested in climate change, he pursued postgraduate studies in environmental innovation. Building on his earlier education, he specialised in environmental impact assessment: “My area has been applying technology, like computer modelling, to predicting [issues] like contamination of groundwater.”

After his return to South Sudan in 2007, he became an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Juba. He still maintained a variety of pursuits, though, and when he was named vice-chancellor of UNBEG three years later, he called on many of these interests in drafting the new university’s curriculum.

When you were given the job of building a new university, what were your goals?

Akec does not want to replicate what other universities in the country – or region – are doing. Instead, he looked at major social gaps and created curricula that would train young people to fill them.

For a country that faces a severe shortage of front-line health workers and some of the worst health indicators in the world, his staff have planned opening a college of health sciences. Another college in human resource development will focus on issues like climate change, one of Akec’s areas of expertise, and also on local development.

There is also a proposed college of architecture and urban planning, “because we know that South Sudan is really at the beginning [of this policy process] and it’s going to be a big thing for years to come: proper town planning, proper architecture that actually reflects the environment”.

And, perhaps most importantly for a country where 98% of state revenue comes from the oil industry, he is planning to open a college of petroleum engineering.

Akec brought the same foresight into designing the university. Rather than working within the parameters of his initial funding, he “wanted to come up with a master plan…I projected as far as 30 years to come, how the university would develop.”

Although UNBEG is only planning to enrol between 800 and 1,000 students when it first opens, he has mapped out a campus that will one day be able to hold thousands more if funding is secured.

“I saw that as an opportunity to actually establish a university, a unique learning institution, that will provide learning services to both staff and the students. I saw it as an opportunity to actually establish a campus that is based on well-planned ideas…and thinking that university could be an engine to revitalise the community around.”

How can the university operate as an engine of social change in South Sudan?

The idea of community revitalisation was also critical in Akec’s planning process for UNBEG. Like most towns in South Sudan, Aweil has little industry and high unemployment, legacies of the war. The town sits on one of the country’s main railway lines, which made it a frequent target of Sudanese attacks during the fighting.

Akec hopes to initiate income-generating activities that not only will help the university become self-sustaining, but also develop areas around Aweil and provide jobs to some of its residents.

So far the only programmes of any kind the university is running are short courses in information and communications technology (ICT) and literacy, which do not require approval by the government.

These courses have been “actually what the local communities need”. Nearly 70% of people in South Sudan are illiterate. By teaching people to read and write and giving them a grounding in ICT, Akec hopes that they will be able to find better jobs or create their own businesses.

What challenges have you faced in getting the university launched?

Following independence, South Sudan’s higher education programme faced a shortage of facilities and staff. But it is a lack of funding and ministerial approval that has kept UNBEG from opening.

Akec says his university was never a high priority for South Sudan’s Ministry of higher Education, Research, Science and Technology.

Because it was created before the country’s independence, the officials who eventually came to power have never felt ownership of UNBEG or the three other new universities that have been recently created – none are yet open to full-time students.

They are the University of Western Equatoria in Yambio; Torit University of Science and Technology in Eastern Equatoria state; and the University of Bantiu, which will now be a private institution.

“We were part of the vision of Sudan…So the ministry has been lukewarm toward the new universities as far as funding is concerned…The challenge we are facing is the support, the commitment of the government for us to actually be established; to give us the facilities that we need.”

Last year the university only got enough money from the government to pay the faculty members that Akec has already hired.

The situation has been exacerbated by an austerity budget the country has been running on for more than a year now.

In January 2012 South Sudan’s government turned off oil production in a stand-off with Sudan over oil revenues. The majority of the old Sudan’s oil reserves were in the south, but the only way to export oil from the newly independent country is via pipelines running through Sudan.

The Sudanese government was demanding higher rates to transport the oil than South Sudan was willing to pay, so the government turned off the source of 98% of its revenue. Shipments only resumed early in May.

Not only did the oil shutdown make government funding virtually impossible to come by for UNBEG, but it also made raising outside money difficult.

Akec ran a fundraising campaign last year and got pledges from businesses willing to support the university. But many of those businesses were also dependent on the government, so they ultimately had to renege on their commitments: “For the last year, nothing much has happened.”

The bigger problem, in Akec’s mind, is the government’s “lack of vision and lack of strategy”. By the time independence came, higher education’s staffing and facility shortages were obvious. The ministry could have made agreements with international universities and organisations that would be willing to contribute supplies and lend professors short-term, but it did not.

“There are people outside who really want to contribute, who want to come, who want to have experience,” he said.

So now South Sudan is already facing a shortage of university openings for students, and Akec knows the situation is only going to get worse. “Really, we need to be prepared for that and expand.”

When UNBEG does open, what will be your leadership strategy?

When he does begin day-to-day management of UNBEG, Akec plans to operate it on the principles of transparency and inclusiveness. Already he involves his entire staff in decisions on issues like budgets.

“I have been consultative, I have been transparent. I have been trying to do good governance.”

He is also preparing to be very busy. While his main job would be fundraising for the university, he also plans to keep an eye on how every facet of UNBEG is running, from the teaching to the cleaning.

“Sometimes I feel that the vice-chancellor has the right to go and see the toilets [and check] whether the toilets where the staff go are very clean, where the public go, where the students go.”

What advice do you have for fellow academics in South Sudan?

Akec has not limited himself to academia. He is also a prolific analyst and critic, a side to himself that he discovered in his undergraduate days.

“I had a passion to write” about current affairs and issues critical to students. He would forgo studying for tests to put together publications he would distribute around campus.

In 2006, he discovered blogging. His blog, JohnAkecSouthSudan, is filled with critiques of government policy, advice on higher education and general thoughts on the political and social conditions of South Sudan.

And his columns are published regularly by local newspapers and websites: “In a way, I’m also an activist. I’m very concerned about the welfare of the people. I want to improve the lot of the average person. That’s my passion, as well.”

It is something he would like to see undertaken by other academics. Not necessarily being a social activist, but translating the work and research they are doing so it can be generally understood and applied.

“What I would encourage is for everybody, if you can, to communicate what is relevant; what is going to inform the policy and what would actually help the public understand the issues in that particular domain of your knowledge.”