Higher education on the brink of disastrous closures
Reports estimate a return on investment of 21% in Africa’s higher education sector, by far the highest in the world. Yet this potential may not necessarily extend with equal measure to all the countries on the continent. Those countries that have persistently underinvested in higher education and human capital formation may miss the boat of rapid economic progress that higher education promises.
South Sudan is among the countries that are most likely to miss out, given a trajectory of underfunding of its higher education sector since the nation gained its independence in 2011.
The country has five functioning public universities (Juba, Bahr El-Ghazal, Upper Nile, Rumbek and Dr John Garang); and four proposed universities (Northern Bahr El-Ghazal, Torit, Liech and Yambio). Between them, the country’s five public universities host about 20,000 students, half of whom are studying at the University of Juba.
However, these public universities are seriously underfunded and lack the basic infrastructure, such as quality lecture halls, well-stocked libraries, equipped laboratories, internet connectivity and office space for teaching staff. When allocating its annual budget, the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning commits itself only to the payment of salaries of staff and hardly earmarks any funds for operation or infrastructure costs or lab equipment.
This funding situation has not changed since independence in 2011. To meet their operating costs, public universities are permitted to charge a symbolic amount in tuition fees. But these fees have remained fixed since 2011 while inflation has risen dramatically, with SSP6 exchanged for one dollar in March 2015 compared to SSP145 in May 2017. This has significantly eroded the purchasing power of tuition fees.
Knock-on effects of inflation
High inflation is the result of a combination of factors, including the war, which has raised government expenditure on security; a reduction in oil revenues accruing to the national government due to low production output and a drop in oil prices on the global market; and the depreciation of the country’s currency against the dollar in the exchange market since December 2015.
To fully appreciate the challenges faced by South Sudan’s universities, take the example of the University of Juba, the primary national university. The impact of inflation on the falling purchasing power of tuition fees collected from students is staggering.
For example, in 2014 the University of Juba’s monthly operational costs were between SSP350,000 and SSP450,000 a month. At that time, the university was spending about SSP80,000 a month on fuel; and SSP120,000 per semester to print out examination answer sheets. A bag of cement for construction projects sold at about SSP250.
From July 2015 to December 2015, operating costs rose to SSP1.4 million a month. By January 2016, operating costs had exceeded SSP4 million per month. The monthly expenditure on fuel for generators alone went up to SSP420,000 per month. Printing of examination script sheets went up to SSP600,000 in 2016 per semester.
Faced with rising operating costs, the administration of the University of Juba decided to triple tuition fees in October 2016 in order to somehow offset these rising prices. The average tuition fees [fees differ from one college to another] were SSP9,000 (or US$100 based on the October 2016 exchange rate). The goal was to raise SSP80 million (or US$1.1 million) for operational and minor infrastructural developments.
However, the fee increase was met by an outcry from students and the public. As a result, the fee rise was annulled by the President of the Republic in an address in Parliament on 14 December 2016. The current reduced fees which average around SSP2,000 per year per student are predicted to raise about SSP30 million, leaving a deficit of SSP90 million, which the administration of the University of Juba needs to effectively operate.
As of May 2017, the exchange rate of US dollars to South Sudan pounds stood at US$1 to around SSP140. That has doubled the 2016 costs and further eroded the market value of the already meagre amount of money collected from tuition fees.
Not only that, but the market value of staff salaries has been tremendously diminished, with a full professor now earning the equivalent of less than US$200 per month and the majority earning less than US$100, down from US$3,000 in 2015.
Recently, the administration of the University of Juba has noted an increasing number of teaching staff taking leave without pay to work in a job in the NGO sector where pay is higher. Others are crossing the border for greener pastures abroad.
What is seen to be a bleak future for the University of Juba is also true for all the public universities of South Sudan. Many will soon close down. The consequences will be a delayed economic recovery and a retarded economic growth in the coming decades, unless measures are taken soon to reverse this dangerous trajectory of South Sudan’s higher education sector.
Dr John Akec is the vice-chancellor of the University of Juba in South Sudan. He blogs regularly at JohnAkecSouthSudan .blogspot.com.