Higher education disrupted by war, hopes for recovery

Recent weeks have seen some university students in Libya sit examinations. It is a sign that things may be improving after the worst 18 months in the history of higher education. The civil war that has been wracking the country has seen universities bombed. Some institutions have had to halt education, and operations have been impeded at others.

Both the University of Benghazi and the Libyan International Medical University, or LIMU, are sited in Garyounis on the periphery of Benghazi and were badly damaged when the suburb became a battlefield and was subsequently occupied in 2014 by Ansar al-Sharia, which is now aligned to Islamic State.

University of Benghazi

The University of Benghazi, which has a student population of 83,000, was forced to halt all teaching.

It is now seeking new premises and is temporarily operating in secondary schools in territory controlled by Libya’s internationally recognised government, which is still fighting for control of Benghazi against forces aligned to Islamic State, or IS – also known as ISIS.

A senior lecturer at Benghazi, whose name is being withheld by University World News to protect his safety, said that in the initial fighting “the damage was very large”, with most campus buildings suffering destruction, including to laboratories and internet facilities.

“ISIS every day sent missiles to the university campus and they destroy everything.” As a result, all learning was halted for the 2014-15 academic year, with students’ studies disrupted and many academics leaving Libya to seek safety, he said.

However, remaining academics and managers were determined to keep courses operating in secondary schools: “Study should continue even though the war is still running. You have to know Benghazi is struggling for its children.”

The faculty of information technology will start 2014 final examinations this month, and the science and engineering faculties staged examinations in late September. New 2015-16 courses for a number of faculties will begin in November, said the lecturer.

Some students fled to the University of Tripoli, which has remained open – and credits gained there would be recognised by the University of Benghazi, he added. Looking ahead, the university is searching for land on which to start constructing new buildings.

Libyan International Medical University

Libyan International Medical University – the country’s top university according to the Webometrics Ranking of World Universities, which places it at 5,208 in the world – has continued to deliver complete courses thanks to its small size (700 students last year) and creative problem solving, albeit from premises in Egypt.

Last May some of its students joined the hosting programme in Egypt’s Suez Canal University, and it is still running. Dr Abdulla Elmansoury, its director and dean of medical sciences, is currently in Cairo overseeing the running of the programme.

He said LIMU students who could finance themselves had gone to Suez Canal University so they could continue studying. Once there was stability in Benghazi, the students would return.

Being private has had advantages, as the owner and lecturers have autonomy. “We are not compromising quality and we aim to meet international standards,” said Elmansoury.

But a lack of funding has required creative budgeting to make sure staff are all paid. Cuts have included staff reductions and cutting down on paper usage: “We are aiming to be a paperless university and we depend on electronic communications as well as electronic exams instead of paper exams,” he told University World News.

LIMU also plans to make money by using its training centre to offer courses and facilities to government and public organisations, offering expertise as consultants and in English language training, as its medical degrees are taught in English.

Higher education harmed

The civil war has harmed other state-run universities, even those not in areas of conflict, such as Omar Al-Mukhtar University in Al Bayda in eastern Libya, which was seconded to house refugees.

Communications have been disrupted, as Libya’s fibre optic cabling has been damaged, making distance learning schemes problematic. Lecturers and students have often had to rely on mobile phones and, where possible, apps such as Viber and WhatsApp.

The University of Tripoli has remained relatively unscathed – with the Libyan capital being controlled by a rival government opposing the internationally recognised administration.

Hussein al-Ageli, director of the university’s planned National Centre for Modern Languages, said: “The university has been able to meet the challenges of the returning combatants and offered summer courses to make up for study time spent in the battlefields.

“Currently the university is doing its best to accommodate students from the east where war is still waging.” He said 22,000 people had applied for places this year, with 8,000 students being registered so far.

Misrata and Zawiya universities have also remained open, according to Ben Gray, director of English language at the British Council in Libya.

The higher education sector

Libya has 14 accredited universities: 13 are state owned and run similar programmes, noted Elmansoury, covering science and arts degrees.

The universities of Tripoli and Benghazi run degrees in education and supply teachers for all secondary schools, and they also offer IT-based degrees. After LIMU, the second highest Webometrics-ranked institution is Misrata University followed by the University of Benghazi.

There are also specialist universities such as Al Asmarya University for Islamic Sciences in Zliten, near Misrata, which offers both bachelor and masters degrees in classic Arabic, law and sharia law.

In applied sciences there is an oil industry engineering college in Tripoli – the Petroleum Training and Qualifying Institute – and Al-Fatah University Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, which is housed within the University of Tripoli.

The civil war came at a terrible time for higher education, as before its outbreak two years after the fall of dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, foreign aid and support had been flowing into Libya.

In March 2014 a United States State Department higher education task force held its first meeting in Washington DC, chaired by US Ambassador to Libya Deborah K Jones and Mohamed H Abubakkar, Libya’s higher education minister.

The goal was to boost higher education in Libya, but the taskforce’s work stalled as violence between General National Congress forces and Islamist militia escalated. A US State Department official stated: “Unfortunately, due to the political situation within Libya in 2014, established plans were not fully implemented.”

A project set up between the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and the United Kingdom’s Open University to implement distance learning in Libya was also postponed, said the Open University’s Academic Partnership Director Dr Sharon Ding.

“Unfortunately, soon after the memorandum of statement of intent was signed, the situation in Libya deteriorated significantly. Because of this our collaboration was put on hold.”

English learning

The development of English learning has also been slowed. It had been a priority after the revolution, with many training programmes being run by the British Council.

“At the moment we are not working in Libya. The office is closed, we have local staff members who work on a back-office basis,” stated Ben Gray of the British Council, which has decamped from Libya to neighbouring Tunisia’s capital Tunis.

“We have several programmes. We have a Skype-based teacher trainer programme in which we work with universities,” he added.

In the past, Libyan students were generously funded to study overseas, but the civil war has created financial difficulties, stemming the flow of students abroad. Elmansoury said his daughter, a masters student at the University of Manchester in the UK, had not been receiving her maintenance grant.

Moreover, since 2014 it has been almost impossible to run bilateral student exchange programmes.

According to a US State Department official: “While recruitment for a number of US-supported exchanges has been temporarily suspended, the United States continues to support Libyan Fulbright [scholarship] students previously selected for study in the United States, including Libyan students due to arrive on US campuses in fall 2015.”

Some positive signs

There are some positive signs.

The British Council has been piloting an English training course in Libya – and it is still operational. The LearnEnglish Connect Courses run from beginner to upper intermediate.

“We have about 150 in Misrata and 150 in Zawiya currently studying. These courses are based in the department of English at these universities,” said Ben Gray.

He is currently advising on the development of the planned new National Centre for Modern Languages, based at the University of Tripoli.

Its director Hussein al-Ageli said: “We have embarked on training the first cohort of teachers, who have now completed the Cambridge Teaching Knowledge Test via Skype in Libya and the In-Service Certificate in English Language Teaching, in Istanbul, Turkey. A second cohort of teachers has been employed and will also undergo the same training programme.”

The centre is undergoing renovation and expansion works and al-Ageli hopes to open this month for the forthcoming academic year.

Libya-based graduates may also have the opportunity to study at the Academy of Graduate Studies in Tripoli, which has announced that it is open to students for the current academic year.

Professor Nureddin Ashammakhi, general director of the Libyan National Authority for Scientific Research or NASR – now called Li’Star – said that regarding PhD training, supervision was not a major issue. However: “Access to literature is a problem due to infrastructure and access to subscriptions.”

NASR-Li’Star has managed to continue to support research. Ashammakhi explained: “We have about 17 research centres and should be able to advise government and also industry if asked to do so.” He said research in Libya was strongest in biotechnology.

Looking ahead, Hussein al-Ageli of the Tripoli language institute said much depended on whether the warring parties would stop fighting as a result of ongoing negotiations: “Everything is dependent on the peace talks to see if we will be able to progress with projects.”