Concerns over dependence on arts – More sciences vital

Experts have raised concerns about what they regard as an over-concentration on arts and Sharia-based courses by universities in Somalia, when the country’s re-emerging peacetime economy has a desperate need for science, business and industrial graduates.

While a permanent political settlement in Somalia is still awaited, the country is far more stable than during the civil war and anarchy of the past, and needs more practical science expertise than the country’s universities and colleges are producing, commentators have said.

“If you compare our graduates to the rest of the regional universities, we don’t fare well. We are uncompetitive. Most Somali companies in science and technical-based fields have to rely on foreigners for manpower,” a lecturer at Adal Medical University and former staff member at the Khibrad Recruitment Agency, Yusuf Maalim, told University World News.

He said most employers seeking business and scientific expertise opt for foreigners because of the lack of local skills, as many Somalis who have this expertise have studied and stayed abroad.

This recruitment weakness, Maalim said, is slowing the country’s reconstruction process, with foreigners remitting their earnings to their home countries, rather than the wealth remaining in the country. It also prevents Somalis from accessing the best jobs in the country.

However, Abdi Osman, a former Somalia minister of education, culture and higher education, said most Somali universities are still struggling to grasp the need to train more engineers and doctors and other technical experts.

“Most institutions have stuck to law, Sharia, and business training. These graduates will find it hard or impossible to compete beyond Somalia’s job market,” he said.

Omar Khalif, a civil engineer who runs a real estate and construction company, Subow Construction, in Mogadishu, said 90% of his artisans, engineers, plumbers and architects are nationals from neighbouring countries.

“You hardly get these skills around here. The trouble with bringing in foreigners is that the cost of construction goes up because of overheads. It would be much easier if we had such graduates here,” he said.

“We run the risk of creating a massive labour market imbalance if we train only for social and arts-based fields. This isn’t the route we should be taking,” Khalif said.

The higher education sector in Somalia remains lightly regulated and “is a free-for-all and anyone can set up a university. The arts and Sharia-based courses are easy and cheap to mount so most university proprietors are rushing towards that windfall,” Maalim said.

Maalim, Khalif and Osman agree there is need for a reorientation of curricula towards science and business-centred courses to better fit the reconstruction policies of the country’s national government.

Concerns over narrow focus

Professor Abdullahi Barise, rector and founder president of the City University of Mogadishu, however, warned against a narrow focus on economic skills in higher education, as the country rebuilds its civic society.

“Somalia is a country in which the legal, social, economic, physical and political infrastructure has been destroyed in decades of war and which is now being revived. Therefore, all the courses are essential for complete reconstruction,” he told University World News.

For instance, he said there is a need to fix the country’s legal and criminal justice system, so that vulnerable groups are protected and can prosper in peace.

This, he said, can only be done by having properly trained judges, prosecutors, activists and lawyers in a reformed and comprehensive justice system.

Barise said the best way to achieve this is through Sharia training, which includes religious jurisprudence which is well accepted among Somalis as a basis for resolving disputes.

“It’s through Sharia training that we will also be able to address the social justice issues, and provide technical skills on how to deal with disputes and address grievances to put Somalia on a lasting peace path,” he said, adding that teaching social sciences would help ensure that built infrastructure is operated and maintained properly.

He said the country also needs political scientists and pubic administrators to serve in its civil service; therefore it would be foolhardy to abandon non-scientific disciplines.

“As much as we need civil and mechanical engineers to deal with the physical reconstruction, the country needs political science, Sharia, social work and other arts-based graduates in equal measures,” Barise said.

That said, he accepted that a broad range of economic disciplines will be needed as Somalia’s economy becomes more diverse, such as ICT, livestock production and agricultural science disciplines.

“In the near future, there will be a need for marine science and petroleum management disciplines to help in protecting and exploiting the country’s vast natural resources,” he said.

Calls for diversity

Farhan Isak Yusuf, a political scientist and lecturer at Mogadishu University, is another academic calling for a more diverse higher education system, claiming “the generalised argument about Somali graduates being uncompetitive by virtue of pursuing Sharia and arts courses ... is unjust”.

Such graduates have won competitive scholarships in countries such as the USA, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey. Some of these graduates are sought after by international non-governmental organisations operating in Somalia, he said.

“So it’s not all gloom for those pursuing these courses,” he said.

“The courses are important in making us understand and appreciate our history, find durable solutions to what pits us against each other as well as help create civic culture and inculcate these skills,” he said.

“In my view, Sharia and arts courses directly contribute to peace in our context, because these courses help nurture a non-violent culture, tolerance and may prevent a relapse into civil war,” he said.

However, he admitted that one reason for the growth of arts and Sharia courses is simply that they are more affordable for poor households, as well as students who performed poorly in sciences in secondary schools.

A determined national government policy, setting up technical schools linked to industries which accommodate future graduates, would help boost the number of economic courses in higher education together with more standardisation to help improve quality, he said.

Detailed higher education policy needed

Barise said it was a priority to pass a higher education act that would create institutions such as a commission for higher education which would develop detailed higher education policy.

“These policies and guidelines and a monitoring body will help universities meet national goals.”

To unlock its potential and be able to serve the country’s reconstruction and national agenda, Osman said regulations should enable formal controls and government input into who opens a university, which courses should be mounted, who gets enrolled and what type of graduates are needed.

Yusuf said more national resources should be allocated for science promotion to boost nationwide awareness of the importance of the sciences for the country’s development and competitiveness.

“Setting up more technical schools as well as the establishment of colleges to train more science teachers and lecturers was needed,” he said.