Rebuilding a national university after decades of war

After leaving Somalia at the height of the civil war to work in universities in Italy and Canada, Professor Mohamed Ahmed Jimale returned to the ravaged Somalian capital of Mogadishu in 2012 with the idea of reviving the Somali National University, or SNU, where he had graduated in 1983 and taught as a lecturer in the faculty of veterinary sciences.

He was approved as rector by the new central government in 2013 and the university opened in 2014 with six faculties.

In this interview, Jimale speaks about the state of higher education in Somalia and the challenge of running a university in what is still an unstable and often hostile environment, and about his hopes of helping poorer Somalis to attain the kind of education that launched his own career.

UWN: What does it take to run such a university?

MAJ: It’s not easy at times. Finding students is difficult, as is finding the right calibre of academic and support staff. Our university is tuition-free, therefore whoever gets admission here must earn it first by passing their high school exams and our pre-admission exams, which many students fail. At the level of academic staff, the higher education labour sector in Somalia is still young and it is tricky getting the right personnel to run the university.

Another challenge is that we depend on the government for funding, which is not constant or predictable due to other competing national budget priorities.

There are those who hold a myth that a tuition-free government university like ours is the preserve of high-ranking government officials and their children or you have to be influential or come from powerful families to get admission. We have had to battle with and demystify [this], making it clear that the university is open to all Somalis. The only ticket required is good grades.

The final challenge is how to bring back our seven campuses with limited resources and cater for swelling numbers.

UWN: What kind of assistance have you received from foreign universities?

MAJ: One of the major problems we have is a lack of equipment and capacity building for our academic staff. [From some universities] we receive text books; from others we have student exchange programmes; and others train our academic staff.

For example, the University of Pretoria [in South Africa] is training our veterinary academic staff; Vaal University of Technology, also in South Africa, is training our engineers; and [Italy’s University of] Pavia is training our medical staff. We are sending some to the University of Bari Aldo Moro and Roma Tre University [in Italy] to study too.

We have academic cooperation with Jigjiga University in Ethiopia, and are currently in discussions with Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Kenya, and Makerere University in Uganda.

UWN: Last August (2016) you reopened the science and technology campus at SNU? Are there plans to open other campuses?

MAJ: It’s our second campus to be reopened and one of the most critical campuses for Somali reconstruction and national development [creating] much needed technical human capital to drive the national reconstruction agenda. The campus will provide a new breed of technology-savvy students to drive the country towards the technical, digital and innovation age, filling the gaps left by those who held those skills, but have been aged out or left the country.

We registered the first 100 students to take up different courses in engineering and they are now taking their first two years together and in third year they will specialise in civil, mechanical or computer engineering.

This is the first cohort who have started their first semester after completing their six months of foundation. We are doing this in collaboration with Vaal University of Technology, which is also preparing our academic staff to run our technology centre.

This year, in collaboration with Italian and South African universities, we are planning to mount postgraduate programmes. These programmes, including economics, health, environment, water management and managerial sectors, will give the young Somalis the impetus not only to make a change back home but compete effectively in the international job market.

UWN: To what extent is the university's reopening a sign of a new dawn for Somalia?

MAJ: It shows the government is ready to give every citizen an equal opportunity to acquire skills and be part of the rebuilding of the country. Its reopening will expand access to higher education.

It gives hope for larger numbers of young people who could never have afforded higher education in private universities. As you know, most households are low-income and large numbers cannot pay for tuition. Since we are not a profit-making entity, we have time to concentrate on quality and promoting public education, giving us an opportunity to produce human resources needed to drive the country forward.

UWN: The African Union [peacekeeping] Mission in Somalia or AMISOM has announced that it has finalised plans to transfer control of Somali National University property to the federal government of Somalia – how important is this regarding developing the university?

MAJ: Its return is not only nostalgic to me and other alumni but a sign we are on a recovery path. The centre they are planning to transfer, known as Gaheyr campus, is one of the largest and iconic. It is a symbol of Somali National University and it is where most influential Somali academicians, business executives and leaders, including the past four prime ministers, graduated from. I also graduated from the campus.

It hosted eight faculties out of the 14 faculties SNU was running, with over 2,000 students, all of whom, [and] including academic staff, resided on the campus before the civil war.

UWN: Tell us a bit about the anticipated growth of the university.

MAJ: In 2014 in our first intake we had 360 students. Now in our third year we have 1,410 students, 98 academic staff and 50 administrative staff. We currently run six faculties on two campuses, namely education, law, economics, veterinary science, agriculture and medicine.

With the handover of the Gaheyr campus, we will have about 2,000 slots for new students and reintroduce more faculties. In the next four to five years we project to double the number of staff as well as students, and open faculties in fields of engineering, journalism, geology.

UWN: How is the university financed and what are its major needs?

MAJ: The university is solely financed by the government. Developing our human resources capital, especially in science, technology and related sectors, is where help is needed most. We are also in need of laboratory technologists. We would love international universities to help us access their libraries as well as offer scholarships for our academic staff to empower them with the necessary lecturing skills and knowledge.

UWN: Universities in Somalia have been ranked lowly in the world rankings. How can they turn this around and compete with the rest?

MAJ: We are just coming out of a 23-year civil war during which time our higher education sector was largely non-existent. You can’t expect us to be on an equal pedestal with other countries. But we are on a recovery path and we will be able to compete with others equally.

Although some higher education has in more recent years been provided by communities and private providers, there were and still are no regulations, meaning quality is wanting.

But now we are debating how to bring back regulations. We have our universities joining the Association of African Universities. Some are also members of the Federation of the Universities of the Islamic World where they can get peer mentoring as well interaction on standards and quality. At SNU, we want to be the role model to which all local universities can benchmark.

UWN: What about research?

MAJ: Most governments, and the private sector, in Africa do not prioritise research. They rarely commit budgets to research, unlike the developed world. This means that universities lack resources to do research.

For us to produce research aligned with national needs we must embrace knowledge-diffusion which [requires] collaboration among all players, so we don’t have research papers on shelves gathering dust. At SNU we are pursuing engagements with industry players, employers, the government, so our research addresses the social and economic problems afflicting our people.

UWN: The recent mushrooming of universities in Somalia has been blamed for compromising standards and producing graduates without skills for jobs. What are your thoughts?

MAJ: We are where we are today because of decades of civil war that led to the collapse of the higher education sector. But as Somalia continues to stabilise, there has been no regulation to guide the industry on who should set up a university and what the benchmarks are. Thus, anyone with money who wants to cash in on the thirst for education has been setting up a private university. This explains the large number of universities coming up.

Unless regulations are in place it will be hard to deal with this problem. If not checked, we will have too many graduates with no relevant skills, which will delay the reconstruction of Somalia.

UWN: What can be done to ensure more female access to Somali universities?

MAJ: In Somalia, education is a commodity. Many communities prefer having a male with education in their families. Many hold the view that women will get married off and they will take this education away from the family. But what we are doing as a university is empowering communities to make sure that education for all is key to development.

At the moment, 25% of our student population is female, which is a good number and we are working to improve it. But to make sure that the gender parity is met, a revival of public education right from the lowest to the highest level is the ideal and lasting solution.