Mergers proposed to enhance quality and sustainability

University professors in Sudan have adopted a plan to merge 35 public universities into nine institutions in a bid to enhance education quality and financial sustainability.

The initiative for merging public universities was presented by Elzain Elkhalefa, an assistant professor in the faculty of education at the University of Khartoum at a workshop on 31 August themed ‘Improving the position of university professors’. It was organised by the Professional Association of Sudanese Higher Education Academic Staff and took place in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan.

A study proposed the creation of four merged universities in the state of Khartoum and five in the rest of the other states, provided that the University of Khartoum, the largest and oldest public university in Sudan, is excluded.

In a press conference, Elkhalefa said “merging public universities will help to transform the large number of sub-standard public universities” with poor infrastructure, inadequate academic staff and resources into competitive institutions that could perform their basic functions, such as research, teaching and learning, efficiently.

This initiative is in line with the April announcement of the ministry of higher education and scientific research that it has embarked on implementing a programme to group together universities, located in one geographical area, to exchange and share expertise and resources.

Tajaldeen Mohamed Tearab, a lecturer at the Nyala University in South Darfur, Sudan, told University World News: “It is wise to merge some faculties as well as universities to improve their educational and research performance.

“For example, if medical faculties in Darfur universities are merged and replaced with one faculty, it will be more successful – and this also applies to other faculties,” Tearab explained.

This is in line with a 2020 study on medical education in Sudan which indicated that merging medical colleges could be a workable option to improve medical education.

“Also, it is possible to combine about 10 public universities and take advantage of their [joint] capabilities,” Tearab added.

In addition to educational and research factors, social and cultural aspects relating to communities should also be taken into consideration. Dialogue and consultation would be necessary, Tearab suggested.

Mergers vs other strategies

Professor Juma Shabani, the director of the doctoral school at the University of Burundi and former director of development, coordination and monitoring of UNESCO programmes with a special focus on Africa, told University World News that sub-standard public universities emanating from university expansion is not unique to Sudan.

“In Africa, several countries have chosen to establish public universities in virtually every state and province as a strategy for human resource and-or economic development,” Shabani said.

But universities must be accredited, which implies they have to be funded to meet quality requirements.

“If they meet the accreditation requirements, small public universities should be encouraged to operate independently. However, the government should help them to build their capacity to network with other established public universities, especially through the use of online teaching and video-conferencing platforms, access to virtual libraries and open educational resources,” he said.

Higher education expert Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid, based at Egypt’s National Research Centre in Cairo, is not in favour of closures or mergers, as the number of universities per population is important because it affects the higher education enrolment rate and university access along with sustainable economic development.

Abdelhamid’s view is in line with the 2019 study ‘The economic impact of universities: Evidence from across the globe’, which found that the increased presence of universities in certain areas is associated with economic growth through an increased supply of human capital and greater innovation.

The study showed that a 10% increase in the number of universities is associated with about 0.4% higher gross domestic product per capita in a region.

“Thus, the best possible action to deal with a large number of small universities with low education quality, low funding and inadequate resources is to provide support such as funding or technical support, changing the universities’ educational strategies, modifying the curriculum in order to make them efficient, high-quality universities to serve development for the society,” Abdelhamid pointed out.

Instead of mergers, he suggested that universities work together, share experiences and resources and capitalise on their existing strengths to achieve more together than any separate one could do alone.

But Ahmed Attia, a higher education expert and the head of the department of research consultation and training at the faculty of medical technology at the University of Tripoli, Libya, told University World News that mergers are an effective way to bring about reform when earlier strategies have failed.