Plans for higher education development – Once war ends

More than five months of fighting between the government and rebel forces in South Sudan has further devastated the country's already neglected higher education system.

Two of South Sudan’s five public universities fell in the path of some of the war’s heaviest clashes. John Garang Memorial University of Science and Technology in Bor, and Upper Nile University in Malakal, have not reopened after the Christmas holiday.

It is not known when – or if – classes will start again.

The remaining three – the University of Juba, the University of Rumbek in Lakes state, and the University of Bahr El Ghazal in Western Bahr El Ghazal state – along with the country’s main private university, Juba’s Catholic University of South Sudan, have managed to reopen.

But administrators said they have lost scores of students and staff to the violence – to even recover the limited capacity in place before the fighting broke out could take years.

In addition, the unrest came just as South Sudan’s chronically underfunded and understaffed higher education system was finally getting some much-needed attention.

Dr John Gai Yoh, who had been appointed to head the national Ministry of Education, Science and Technology last August, was working with his staff to complete a comprehensive review of the five universities.

Then the country went to war.

That has not stopped Yoh and his team from unveiling draft plans in mid-May to overhaul the higher education system. A public outline calls for new money, new buildings and a systemic review of all of the existing policies by 2025.

Its prospects for being realised hinge, however, on a ceasefire agreement made in January finally taking hold.

This is not just so battered lecture halls can be patched and scattered students can get back to class, but also to jump start the oil production that is key to the country’s economy and free up money desperately needed to fund most of Yoh’s proposals.

Conflict backdrop

Thousands of people have been killed and more than a million others displaced by the fighting that broke out in mid-December.

The conflict grew out of a political squabble between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar. Kiir fired Machar and the rest of his cabinet last July without explanation – which also paved the way for Yoh’s ministerial appointment in August.

By the end of 2013, Machar had become increasingly critical of Kiir’s leadership. After fighting broke out in a military barracks in South Sudan’s capital Juba on 15 December, Kiir went on public television to accuse Machar of launching a coup.

The former vice president denied the charge, but within days he acknowledged that he was in open rebellion against the government. Fighting spread rapidly across much of the eastern half of the country and – despite two ceasefire agreements – clashes continue.

The fighting is now centred on the north-eastern states of Unity and Upper Nile that produce the country’s oil, and a third – Jonglei – which has suspected reserves and whose capital Bor hosts John Garang Memorial University of Science and Technology.

Crude sales account for 98% of the government’s revenue, but the fighting has forced severe production cuts.

The capitals of those three states have seen particularly heavy fighting. Each has changed hands multiple times and the back-and-forth shelling has razed homes, markets and schools.

Universities disrupted

As for the local universities – Upper Nile University Vice-chancellor Dr Isaac Cuir Riak said he does not even know what is left of his institution. He fled months ago ahead of the first rebel attack on the town.

“I am in exile,” he said, living in Juba until he is able to return to Malakal and start rebuilding his institution. “I will have to go to the ground to get an assessment of what is there.” Until he does, he said he could not estimate whether it will take months or years to reopen the university.

The three other public universities have not yet suffered any physical damage, but the violence dispersed their students and faculty and kept them closed for weeks after the initial fighting broke out.

Dr John Apuru Akec is the new vice-chancellor of the University of Juba. Before his March appointment, he was setting up the University of Northern Bahr El Ghazal, but the government never provided the funding to move the institution beyond the planning stage.

At the University of Juba, where he is working frantically to implement wide-ranging improvements, the fighting “shifted everything by several weeks. It affected us in terms of scheduling.” It has also delayed his efforts to make improvements to the curriculum and overall management of the institution.

“Things are working,” he said, just not as well as they should have been.

The fighting has done more damage to Akec’s cross-town neighbour, the private Catholic University of South Sudan. Vice-chancellor Mathew Pagan said that in addition to losing more than half of his students – including dozens killed in the fighting – international affiliates have also dropped his university.

“Many of our partners who were supporting us, they could no longer respond really to the plans we had with them,” he said. “They said, ‘How can we do anything with the war?’”

He pointed to collaboration with US-based Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and the US Agency for International Development, or USAID, which was helping Catholic University pilot an agricultural training programme.

When the fighting started, “they abruptly just closed that project, which was supposed to continue for the next two years.”

Resources nearly non-existent

Resources have always been limited for South Sudan’s higher education system.

Dr Benjamin Gabriel Apai, a director general in the Education Ministry, said the university system receives 0.4% of the current US$5.6 billion government budget. And officials complain that just because the money is promised, does not mean it will arrive.

The result, Apai said, was too few faculty members, not enough student accommodation and, in some instances, lecturers using secondary school facilities to hold class because their universities have no rooms of their own.

Research materials are scarce and internet access is a rarity. Apai, who led a month-long investigation in September 2013 (before the fighting) into the condition of the country’s state universities, documented all of these shortages and more.

With the oil fields under attack and collaborations being cut, there may be even fewer resources for higher education than at any other point in South Sudan’s short history.

Apai’s report helped guide Yoh’s proposal, “The New Transformative Agenda 2025 for Education in South Sudan”. The minister said he could only provide a sketch of the proposal so far, because he still needs to present it to top government officials. What he could reveal was a plan to completely overhaul the country’s higher education system.

In addition to addressing Apai’s concerns by providing more resources and better technology, Yoh is calling for a curriculum review and more stringent hiring policies to recruit better-educated lecturers.

He also wants to expand university class sizes; according to Apai, there is space for only one out of every four qualified college applicants in South Sudan.

And for students who still cannot attend one of the state institutions, the minister has put forward a proposal to turn the planned University of Northern Bahr El Ghazal and three other proposed universities – the University of Bentiu in Unity state; University of Western Equatoria in Yambio, Western Equatoria; and the University of Torit in Eastern Equatoria – into vocational training centres.

Yoh acknowledged that more money will be crucial to the success of his plans and in the midst of the war, he has not received any definite commitments.

But during his only meeting with President Kiir since the fighting started, Yoh said the president told him to continue focusing on drafting his plan and promised that soon he “will have a lot of work to do.”

But only after the fighting stops.