Calls for quality over quantity in higher education

Senior figures in Somalia’s education and employment sector are calling on the country’s increasingly influential government to bring down the numbers of tertiary colleges and universities to better match the number of competent pupils emerging from the country’s secondary schools, and to ensure better quality graduates.

The proliferation of universities within Somalia – especially private institutions – as peace has taken root in the country has prompted concern among experts that standards of education have weakened and graduates are regarded as uncompetitive in the job market.

A key factor has been the quality of the students securing places at universities. With the rebirth of the country’s secondary schooling actually lagging behind the boom in universities, many undergraduates lack secondary education skills, making it harder for them to thrive in a tertiary setting.

Abdirahman Dahir Osman, Somalia’s minister of education and higher education, told University World News that an unwelcome consequence of the situation was a mismatch between what universities offer and industry demands.

Noting that there are currently universities with a collective annual enrolment of 50,000 students every year against only 30,000 secondary school leavers (itself a small number given Somalia’s 14.9 million population), he said: “Surely there is something wrong. Normally, not all those who complete secondary schools get admitted to universities. It is unacceptable.”

The result, he said, was that universities “absorb even those not qualified to fill the spaces”, leading to the admission of weaker students, thereby compromising standards and quality.

Speaking at an education sector consultative meeting in Mogadishu on 12 January, he is reported to have said: “When they graduate, they are not fit for the market, and cannot compete with students from neighbouring countries like Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia or those from Djibouti.”

Restoring balance

To bring a balance he said his ministry was working on revamping formal national standards for education, which had been ignored during the country’s long civil war. Without giving further details, he said his ministry was also looking for ways to expand secondary education and strengthen the rules governing the establishment and management of universities.

It is clear that such an initiative is needed. The Heritage Institute for Policy Studies, a Somali think-tank, reported that in 2013 the number of universities in the country had already exceeded 50. Since then, the boom has continued with more than 100 tertiary institutions now operating across Somalia, with about 60 institutions operating in the capital Mogadishu alone, according to Abdulkadir Abdi Hashi, former minister of education, culture and higher learning.

This expansion has left Somalia with more universities than its neighbouring countries. Kenya has 58 universities, Tanzania 47 and Ethiopia 36. Compared with Somalia, these countries also have a stronger higher education regulatory framework and relative political and security stability.

Poor graduate quality

Because of the poor quality of graduates, Somalian employers are unhappy. Yusuf Aden Omar, who runs the Deman Construction Company in Mogadishu, told University World News that despite the glut of graduates, recruiting workers with the necessary hands-on skills is difficult.

Even though he seeks to recruit Somalia-based professionals, his company has to import quantity surveyors, equipment operators, civil engineers, planners, environmentalists, electricians, site managers, quality assurers and other technicians from neighbouring countries.

While the establishment of universities in any country traditionally signals the development of personnel able to drive national economic development goals and help employers, in Somalia the expansion has created a “pool of half-baked graduates”, he said.

“Some come out with knowledge and skills that are a mismatch with industry’s demands and contrary to Somalia's social and economic development blueprint,” he said, calling for a review of university education to help align the curriculum with its national development strategy and labour market demands. In the meantime, he said, there should be an end to the establishment of more private universities.

Quality of secondary schools

Hassan Ali Hassan, a former education consultant at the ministry of education, called for urgent reforms to bring down tertiary institution numbers to a level sufficient to cater for qualified candidates from secondary schools.

“We have had an uncontrolled upsurge of universities, leading to a scramble for students to enrol; thus we have been seeing even those who don’t qualify to join universities enrolled and this has saturated the system and put a great dent on the standards and quality of higher education in the country,” he said.

Unlike its regional neighbours which have many public sector universities running alongside their private institutions, Somalia has only Somali National University. Its independent tertiary sector is run by private diaspora groups, religious organisations, non-governmental organisations or local communities.

Despite their good intentions, Hassan said that without proper regulations, accreditation and quality assurance frameworks, these universities will continue to produce poorly-trained graduates.

“In an ideal situation, a post-war county like Somalia should not have more than 20 universities,” he said.

Professor Abdullahi Ahmed Barise, president of City University of Mogadishu, a private institution with a strong reputation, said some universities were run on commercial principles by unscrupulous businessmen who had no regard for standards.

“The problem is not proliferation of universities per se, but proliferation of substandard universities that make unfounded and misleading claims. Proliferation of quality universities would not be a problem because the process would correct itself due to the supply and demand process,” he told University World News. “All quality universities would compete for a limited number of high school graduates and those that could not attract enough students would eventually close,” he said.

Post-conflict phenomenon

Barise said the current situation had been seen before in countries emerging from conflict.

“Students coming from weak pre-university education, [combined with] a lack of university self-regulation and government regulation, is a common phenomenon with countries recovering from prolonged conflict and civil strife – for example, Afghanistan,” he said.

Barise said he hoped that a proposed education bill now before Somalia’s parliament would help sort out the mess. If approved, it will impose standards for university operations and create a regulator to ensure quality assurance in the sector.

To offer quality education that meets international standards and Somalia's development priorities, his university had set up an internal quality assurance system designed to continually review and address gaps in all aspects of the university.

“All students must pass entrance examinations to be admitted to the university. Once they pass the admission test, they get enrolled in a foundation programme to prepare them for university education to bridge the secondary school gaps. The focus is on English as a second language, maths and computer skills,” he said.