Higher education system is falling apart

Frustrated students at one suspended South Sudanese university are threatening to burn their place of learning down if classes do not resume soon.

Across the country, the vice-chancellor of another of five officially open national universities said he was prepared to resign because he does not have the money to keep the institution running. And three planned national universities have still not opened their doors, even as more and more students look for higher education opportunities.

Less than two years into independence, South Sudan’s higher education system is falling apart.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Following the launch of the world’s newest country in July 2011, the South Sudan Ministry of Higher Education was moved to release a list of its top accomplishments in the nation’s first 100 days.

It included President Salva Kiir’s declaration that education was to be one of his government’s top priorities, and a new salary structure for professors and administrators that promised to draw the nation’s top minds into the academy.

In early 2012, the country’s new parliament passed a Higher Education Act that, while primarily designed to provide structure to the university system, also expressed a desire to create a network of institutions that would play a prominent role in helping build the new country.

Vision versus reality

Dr Abraham Matoc Dhal, principal of the University of Rumbek in central South Sudan, said he bought into the vision. In 2010 he left his job in the economics department at the University of Juba to take the position – the same as a provost in Western universities – in Rumbek.

“The picture is gloomy now,” he said. But when he took the job it was under the banner of transforming a country facing a slew of critical needs: “We could reduce health problems, reduce illiteracy by producing teachers, produce economists who could professionally manage the economy.”

He said the idea was that each of the universities – the five officially established institutions, as well as three others that are supposed to open – would become centres of excellence in specific subjects.

Rumbek was meant to house colleges of economics, education, agriculture and medicine. Only the first two have been opened – and then they abruptly closed last year.

In June, students held demonstrations demanding that the university be reopened – or else they would set fire to the facilities that have been created. Dhal said student leaders have even volunteered to give up some of the benefits that come with being a university student, including free housing, in favour of creating more classrooms.

He said they are trying to get the doors opened again, but the problem at Rumbek is the same as the problem at all of South Sudan’s universities: a lack of money.

Financial crisis

The country is in the midst of a financial crisis, following its decision in January 2012 to suspend oil production – the source of 98% of its revenue. The only pipeline out of South Sudan’s oil fields runs through Sudan, the country it seceded from.

Rather than paying transit fees it deemed too high, the government decided to shut down the production of crude oil and adopt austerity measures.

Despite being one of the president’s top priorities, the Ministry of Higher Education suffered huge cuts, along with most other departments.

In the 2011 fiscal year the ministry’s budget was more than SDG138 million (US$46.9 million). During the austerity period ministry officials said it has been cut by 54%.

Finance Minister Kosti Manibe Ngai issued a directive instructing the higher education ministry to “consider deferring opening of universities not yet operating and reducing staffing to reflect the current number of students enrolled”.

Aggrey Ayuen Majok, vice-chancellor of Dr John Garang Memorial University in Bor, said the cuts went too far.

Planning for the University of Western Equatoria in Yambio, Torit University of Science and Technology in Eastern Equatoria state and the University of Northern Bahr el Ghazal in Aweil has come to a temporary halt, along with the ministry’s plans to bring higher education opportunities closer to more communities.

Meanwhile, last year more than 11,000 students applied for the 6,000 available university spots. They cannot turn to private universities, because the government has closed most of them, declaring that they do not meet national standards.

So students are forced to go abroad for higher education, if they can afford it, or simply go without.

Ayuen said he was forced to reduce enrolment numbers, because he has not received any money in a year from the national government. Instead of the 120 students they had last year, John Garang currently has only 80.

Administrators at the university, which opened in 2010, no longer have the money to pay lecturers and cannot even afford to keep the lights on in student housing.

“The money is just not coming,” Ayuen said. “I don’t know how long I will continue to beg. Maybe if the begging fails, [the option] is just to walk away.”

All universities suffering

And it’s not just the new universities that are suffering. Students at the country’s flagship institution, the University of Juba, complain of constant lecturer shortages and a lack of opportunities to apply practical skills, such as medicine or electrical engineering.

Dr John Apuru Akec, vice-chancellor of the University of Northern Bahr el Ghazal, said the national government had failed to think creatively about solutions to solve the shortages, especially in staff.

“You could have actually made up for that shortage, for that gap, by depending on international staff,” he said, who could be paid by their home universities to assist South Sudan. Instead, the government had been content to let the existing universities fall apart.

Officials in the ministry said they knew there was a problem. They have started hosting a series of meetings with university administrators to discuss the crisis and brainstorm solutions.

Andrew Malek Madut Chol, the acting undersecretary, said changes would come soon, but acknowledged that the lack of money would continue to cause problems.

“Higher education is so valuable to us, so valuable to our development that we will do whatever we can,” he said.

“If we get one penny, we’ll try to see how we can ration it, so at least the wheel keeps going. It may not be going as fast as it should, but at least the wheel will still be rolling.”