War-torn nation’s universities desperately need support

Somalia’s higher education sector has been growing rapidly. However, lack of government oversight, low quality, high levels of poverty, political instability and security challenges have been hindering reforms. A new prime minister has raised hopes – but is likely to be distracted by numerous other pressing problems.

Last month saw the appointment of Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, who obtained degrees in political science and political economy from Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. He was appointed prime minister – for a second time – in December but his first cabinet, announced on 12 January, was dissolved amid stiff opposition from legislators.

Samawade Ali-Dahir, president of Somalia’s Indian Ocean University in the capital Mogadishu, told University World News: “Somalia has been in civil war for two decades and has just got its first internationally recognised government for the past two years.

“The government has major challenges and higher education is not a priority for them now.

“The education sector has suffered with no government involvement and most of the responsibility for higher education was left to a few private sector institutions and educators to fill the vacuum, educate the next generation and provide them an alternative to a life of crime, and hope for the future.

“This ad hoc approach to higher education is unsustainable and it will require government involvement and regulation,” Dahir stressed.

Echoing his view, Abdiwahab Ali Mumin, director of the Mogadishu Center for Research and Studies in Somalia, told University World News that in Mogadishu alone there were dozens of universities registered with the Ministry of Higher Education.

The increase in the number of private universities across the country had improved access to higher education, but the expansion was “quantity without quality”.

In 2013 the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies – Somalia’s first independent think-tank – carried out the most comprehensive survey of higher education institutions undertaken in the country, and produced a report titled The State of Higher Education in Somalia.

The institute found that higher education institutions had proliferated in Somalia during the two decades of civil war. “More than 50,000 students are attending some 50 universities across the country. This exponential growth happened largely without government oversight and quality control,” said the report.

Higher education challenges

The security challenges facing Somalia’s universities were highlighted by a car bomb that critically injured a lecturer at SIMAD University in Somalia's capital Mogadishu on 7 January, according to a press report.

It also reported that on 10 December, “unidentified assailants killed the university’s acting president Ibrahim Mohamud Hamud in a drive-by shooting”.

Dahir said the higher education sector faced many problems but there were some areas that required immediate help.

“These include capacity building, access, equity (the enrolment gender gap), the quality of learning at some local universities is weak, and fiscal sustainability – the government's current resources are not sufficient to increase access or improve quality.”

He believes a 10-year strategy needs to be developed for the sector covering a range of activities “divided into areas of intervention like capacity building, access, quality control and investment”.

Mumin said higher education challenges also included “inadequate and inexperienced academic staff, lack of appropriate places for higher education, lack of modern curricula for different faculties, and lack of equipment and learning materials".

“There are concerns about the irrelevance of academic programmes to the needs of the country, the absence of an effective government role in the sector and the absence of a national authority for quality and accreditation.”

He concluded: “Most of Somalia’s higher education challenges and obstacles cannot be overcome in the absence of government’s role. We believe the establishment of a national authority for quality and accreditation will have an important impact on improving the quality of higher education institutions.”

According to the Heritage Institute report: “The absence of national and regional educational policies adds to the woes of higher education institutions.

“Research and publications capacity is almost non-existent. Teaching capacity is also very low. Universities lack adequate facilities such as science and computer labs. And they heavily rely on student fees to subsidise their operations.”

High fees charged by universities in Somalia, which are run by the private sector with few scholarships – and the fact that around 43% of Somalia’s people live below the poverty line – have priced many potential students out of higher education.

Mohamud Hamid Mohamed, vice-chancellor of Somalia's Puntland State University, told University World News he believes the country needs help in improving its universities.

“Addressing some of Somalia's higher education problems would require more international support in terms of funding for academic and infrastructure development, scholarships – for students in local institutions as well as outside the country, especially for masters and PhDs – as well as international networking.”