Universities offer lessons in survival strategies

South Sudan's higher education system is one of the most poorly funded government sectors and faces a myriad challenges including infrastructural inadequacy and staff shortages. Nonetheless it is employing coping strategies which offer invaluable lessons for comparable higher education systems in (post-)conflict contexts.

The country, which attained its independence from Sudan in July 2011, has one of the smallest, but most problematic higher education systems in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The world’s newest country has five public universities – the University of Juba, the University of Bahr El-Ghazal, Upper Nile University, Dr John Garang Memorial University of Science and Technology and Rumbek University – with nearly 20,000 students, including 1,040 graduate students.

There are also four 'project' or 'proposed' public universities: the University of Western Equatoria (Yambio), the University of Northern Bahr El-Ghazal, Torit University of Science and Technology and the University of Bentiu.

Exacerbated by conflicts and a lethargic economy, the system is confronted with several challenges, characterised prominently by poor physical infrastructure, underfunding, and severe staff shortages. These weaknesses have heavy implications for the capacity of the universities to function.

The failure of public universities to meet the enormous demand for tertiary education has encouraged the emergence of an unregulated private university sector in the country.

South Sudan has 13 private universities, but only four of them are recognised.

The focus here is on the experience of the five functioning public tertiary institutions. Faced with extant problems, the institutions have limited options but to live with the challenges. Four main approaches underline the sector’s resilience: dedicated staff, institutional partnerships, a supportive tertiary governance structure and international assistance.

Dedicated staff

In 2012, there were only 721 faculty employed at the universities, which suggests a comparatively moderate student:lecturer ratio of 28:1. But the universities experience a considerable shortage in qualified academics.

With 66% of the students, Juba University, the largest tertiary institution in the country, lost 561 of its staff, northern Sudanese, at independence. Similarly, significant numbers of faculty of Upper Nile University and Bahr El-Ghazal University, the post-1991 institutions, remained in Khartoum when the universities were returned to the South in December 2010.

Moreover, the system is dominated by unqualified faculty.

For example, in terms of academic qualifications, only 86 of all academics held a PhD in 2012. Furthermore, staff profiles, compiled the same year, revealed that only 36 faculty were full professors, while 62 were associate professors, 76 assistant professors, 242 lecturers and 262 teaching assistants. To run the academic programmes, universities recruit part-time tutors. Thus, 31% and 60% of Juba and Bahr El-Ghazal lecturers, respectively, were part-timers in late 2016. The staff situation at the other three universities is equally alarming.

Nonetheless, the universities employ some of the most educated, experienced and talented workforce in the country.

Rigorous university recruitment procedures insulate the institutions from the corrupt practices inherent in the civil service. More importantly, the commitment of the academics to the institutions underscores their ability to impart knowledge and provide other vital services. The dedication of the academic staff mitigates the threats posed by the lack of qualified faculty. For example, a Bahr El-Ghazal professor supervises 12 doctoral students.

Institutional partnerships

In general, scanty infrastructural facilities represent the most pressing challenge for the universities. The facilities and laboratory equipment of the three older universities were either left in Khartoum when the institutions were repatriated to the South, or plundered in the aftermath of the December 2013 conflict, as in the case of Upper Nile and John Garang.

To tackle this problem, the vice-chancellors instituted partnerships, which had a positive impact on the capacity of the institutions. For instance, John Garang has reopened in Bor, and due to the current insecurity in Malakal, Upper Nile has been relocated to Juba. The displaced university utilises some of Juba’s facilities, and Juba’s professors instruct students and work part-time at John Garang.

Furthermore, Rumbek University’s science students conduct laboratory experiments at the University of Bahr El-Ghazal in Wau, and John Garang’s science students visit Juba for their practical work.

In addition, professors in other universities supervise Juba’s graduate students. To ensure staff development, universities enrol their staff for graduate studies offered by the universities of Juba and Bahr El-Ghazal.

Supportive governance

Tertiary education in South Sudan is governed through the ministry of higher education, science and technology. The ministry has policy, technical and administrative oversight.

Although the minister is a political appointee, the presence of academics, such as the under-secretary, at the helm of the ministry ensures that the views of the tertiary institutions on the problems confronting them are taken into consideration.

The ministry supports the universities, primarily by providing government funding. The ministry increased the remuneration of lecturers in 2014, a measure that attracted some academics back to the universities. The number of Juba’s permanent staff rose from 251 in 2011 to 574 in 2016.

Although this indicates a 56% increase from 2011, it is still well below the university’s pre-independence staff level of 700. In addition, through the ministry’s efforts, some European and African countries support university staff development programmes. Currently, through this initiative, many academics pursue graduate studies at Makerere University, Uganda, the University of Zambia and the University of Zimbabwe.

Moreover, the representation of the universities on the National Council for Higher Education strengthens the bonds between them and provides the institutions with a national platform. In addition, the university leaders have introduced a collegial management style in the universities.

Faculty, students and supporting staff are consulted on major institutional affairs, which enhances internal university communication. In this respect, the universities determine, and reflect on, the wider issues within and outside their campuses.

The vice-chancellors draw on their connections and political insight to access resources for the universities. They appeal to members of university councils, who are often influential ministers or parliamentarians, in order to be heard by government ministries. In a country where informality is more dynamic than bureaucratic procedures, this modus operandi often yields results.

International assistance

Higher education is one of the least funded government sectors in the country. The universities consistently receive less than 1% of annual fiscal allocations. This meagre funding restricts university operations. University administrators use funds prudently on staff remuneration, procurement of essential services, and learning equipment such as books. As a result of the government’s inability to fund physical infrastructure and staff development programmes, the universities need to rely on foreign support.

International assistance is the most practical mechanism to address the two critical challenges confronting the tertiary sector: infrastructural inadequacy and staff shortages.

With international support, universities can handle the issue of infrastructure. Prior to independence, Juba secured US$6.5 million from international development partners – Norway and USAID – to build premises for its college of law in 2010. The new buildings provide accommodation for other colleges and a graduate research centre.

At that time, 87.6% of the faculty did not have doctorates. Staff development is therefore a top priority on the international assistance agenda. In early 2011, Juba agreed to a three-year venture with the Virginia Tech and Virginia State University to train Juba’s staff. Juba also signed a memorandum of understanding with the Open University of Tanzania in August 2015 to promote distance learning programmes between the two institutions.

The University of Bahr El-Ghazal entered a similar arrangement with Makerere University in Uganda and the University of Oslo in Norway. Also, Texas A&M University and the University of New York signed a memorandum of understanding with Dr John Garang Memorial University in June 2010. Following the outbreak of war, however, the international community suspended its assistance to the universities, as it shifted its attention to the humanitarian crisis.


South Sudan’s tertiary sector is confronted with many challenges. Although universities are unable to entirely overcome the problems, they employ strategies to live with them. This experience offers invaluable lessons for comparable higher education systems in (post-)conflict contexts.

Kuyok Abol Kuyok is associate professor at the college of education, University of Juba, Juba, South Sudan. E-mail: kuyokabol64@hotmail. This article first appeared in the current issue of International Higher Education.