Monday, February 01, 2021

Looking Back and Looking Forward

 By John A. Akec* 


The year 2020 was one of a kind for the global community, South Sudan included. It will be remembered for the worst public health crisis in a century due to the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic caused by SARS-Cov-2 virus. All of us had to cope with the impact of a pandemic that took lives and left economies across the globe in tatters. No country was spared. A second wave of this pandemic is wreaking havoc in parts of the world, aggravated by new variants B.1.1.7 and B.1.351 that are 40% to 74% more contagious, according to a report by The New Scientist, a weekly science magazine.

Looking back, we at the University of Juba had our share of grief and sadness. A number of colleagues died due to various illnesses. They include Professor Aggrey Ayuen Majok, former Vice Chancellor of Dr John Garang Memorial University for Science and Technology and  Rumbek University of Science and Technology, and founding Dean of the School of  Veterinary Sciences at the University of Juba; Mr Simon Monoja Lubang, Associate Professor at the School of Social and Economic Studies, and former Director of Centre for Peace and Development Studies; and most recently Professor Samson Samuel Wassara, former Vice Chancellor of the University of Bahr el Ghazal, two times Dean of School of Social and Economic Studies, and two times Director of the Institute of Peace, Development and Security Studies; Mr Andrea Ahmed Bawal, former and long-serving head of Personnel at University of Juba; Mr Yanga Joseph Lagu, a technician at Department of Fisheries, and so many others. Our thoughts and prayers go out to their families and friends.

On a more positive note, we were able to make progress on several fronts. Foremost, our University was able to organize and contribute to national efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. We participated in two government’s high level taskforces on COVID-19 and colleagues are still serving on the Medical Advisory Panel (MAP) of the High Level Taskforce on COVID-19.  Our students volunteered in case contacts tracing.  Our technical committee provided public education on how our population can protect itself from the virus. We also collaborated with the UNDP to conduct a rapid socio-economic impact assessment on gender equity in South Sudan due to pandemic which was used to review lockdown policies. 

Last year was also unique in that from February 2020, we had 12-hour power on the main campus, and 24-hour electricity in staff and student residences. We were able to reopen the University amid fears of the pandemic despite losing months of the academic year. And although our University had experienced several student unrests in the past year due to opposition to tuition fees payment, we were able to restore order and calm to the campuses. The crisis enabled us to improve our registration system and student identity cards production capacity.

On infrastructure front, much progress has been achieved to improve our physical environment. These included the inauguration of a renovated Al Sammani Hall in February; expansion of landscaping and paving of the campus; conversion of a store into a 220-seat lecture hall; turning a disused building into engineering laboratory; construction of additional student washrooms; maintenance of 20 seminar rooms with a combined capacity of 400 seats at our Centre of Human Resources Development and Continuing Education (CHRDCE); maintenance of the main chemistry laboratory; maintenance and refurbishing of University Clinic; and launching of a new waste management unit.  At the Customs (Western) Campus, a new gate with improved access was erected; the biotechnology, geology, and physics laboratories were maintained; and solar-powered lighting was installed for improved security at night.

In student residences, washrooms were maintained at girls’ hostel, and an accommodation block with 160-bed capacity was maintained at Ramciel boys’ quarters.

Looking forward, a campus-wide Wi-Fi internet connection will be launched in February 2021; more student washrooms at both campuses will be maintained or added; buildings at the School of Computer Science and Information Technology will receive a face-lift; and access to our main administration building will be enhanced, among others. 

Last but not least, we have recognized colleagues who made very significant contributions to the life of the University in 2020. I also thank every single staff of our University for making valuable contributions in 2020. I am very sure 2021 will come with challenges, but also  exciting opportunities and blessings. Best wishes for a happy new year.   

 *First published in JUVARSITY News Letter, January 2021

Monday, December 07, 2020

.Mass Higher Education Expands Opportunities for All

By John A. Akec

The Juba Monitor Newspaper published in its 13th November 2020 issue an opinion article with a title suggesting that the vice chancellor of the University of Juba had informed yet to be named audience that ‘education is not for the poor’, without explaining precisely when and in which occasion or medium this statement was released. I wrote to the editor of Juba Monitor, Anna Nimiriano, asking her to present a proof that my office released such a statement, or she owes me an apology. I am still waiting for a response.   

This message is not meant to be a rebuttal of what the Juba Monitor has published, although in itself is a cause worth pursuing in other occasions. Instead, my message is intended to shed light on the aims and cost of providing mass higher education, which has become the tool for social mobility and inclusion for the under privileged members of any society.  

 To begin with, it is reasonable to speculate that by demanding that students pay their tuition fees without exception, the University of Juba may be seen as pursuing a tuition fee policy whose unintended consequence may lead to the exclusion of those from lower income brackets of society. In other words, making tuition fees a prerequisite for accessing higher education irrespective of incomes of the families, can be interpreted as another way of saying ‘education is not for the poor.’ Many can find this sentiment convincing. Yet nothing could be farther from the truth.  

The advent of mass higher education is not new. It started in the US and Western countries following the end of the World War II, as a means of increasing access to university and college education for wider sectors of society, especially poorer families and war veterans. By the turn of the twentieth century, Western countries had moved from ‘mass higher education’ to ‘universal higher education’ on the same par with primary and secondary education in order to create ‘nations of educated people.’   

The idea of mass higher education came to Africa quite late, and is still taking shape. Historically, African countries inherited elitist colonial university systems, modeled after British Oxford and Cambridge, and French Grande Ecoles. Their sole purpose was to train colonial administrators and political leaders for post-colonial era. They were never designed to be inclusive, comprehensive, nor development orientated. Higher education was free and benefited a tiny fraction and most able, or most privileged members of the society. By early 1980s, expanding university education to accommodate larger numbers of students proved financially unsustainable for most African governments.   

Moreover, a World Bank’s publication authored by George Psacharospoules and colleagues in 1986 argued that investment in general education renders higher returns than tertiary education, and recommended a financing policy that gave preference to general education over higher education as part of Structural Adjustment Policy (SAP) for heavily indebted countries. It also called for cost-sharing in order to finance the massifcation of higher education through payment of tuition fees; and advocated for the opening up of higher education market to private sector investment.   

Because the Sub Sahara African countries could not devise sustainable financing policies for expansion of their higher education systems, the sector stagnated between the mid 1980s and early 2000s. It also resulted in the continent trailing behind the rest of world in terms of university enrolment ratios. On the other hand, Asian and Latin American countries, as well as Russia, found ways to expand their higher education systems in 1990s and 2000s through cost sharing and privatization, in line with World Bank recommendations. But African countries have begun to catch up with massification.  

Here at the University of Juba, we have a 15-year master plan (2015-2030) that aims to “increase access to quality higher education.” As a result, our student population has risen from 10,000 in March 2014 to over 22,000 by September 2020. This is expected to rise further to 60,000 by 2030.  This expansion will not be realised without contribution from students and their families in form of tuition fees. The government will continue to contribute a lion share of financing in order to make university education affordable to broader sectors of our citizens, as opposed to providing ‘free higher education’ which is not sustainable.    

I wish you all a very happy Christmas

Friday, November 06, 2020

University Leadership: Making a Difference


By John A. Akec

Great universities do not just happen nor fall from the skies. They are made to succeed. The people managing them, and the economic environments surrounding them, contribute to their stagnation, or cause their rise to the top.


And in academic circles, we often speak of ‘Harvard here syndrome’ – the desire by many countries to have in their backyards universities of stature of MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, Chicago, ETH Zurich, UCL, Cornel, Edinburgh, Yale, Columbia, Imperial, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Tokyo, Peking, and such like. These are just few names gleaned from the list of 1,000 top world-class universities by QS World University Ranking 2020. They were selected and ranked for their excellence in teaching and high impact research output.


And it is worth mentioning that In this year’s QS World University Ranking, only 13 African universities were listed among the top-ranked 1,000 global universities. These are: Cape Town, American University in Cairo, University of Witswatersrand, Stellenbosch, Johannesburg, Cairo, Pretoria, Ain Shams, Alexandria, Assuit, Rhodes, Kwazulu-Natal, and Western Cape. It does not escape noting that the list is dominated by South African universities (8), and Egyptian universities (5), in line with their economic status and political clout on the global stage.


Being absent from the top 1000 global universities ranking does not mean the end of the road for a university. The global higher education market has over 25,000 universities, and counting. India, United States, China, Indonesia, Brazil, Russia, and Japan lead with a combined lion share of 17,000 universities between them, or host 70% of recorded universities in the world. Many universities across the globe are serving their communities and helping their nations to weather competition in knowledge intensive sectors of global economy. Still some universities are doing better than others.


And certainly, national higher education policies and financing afforded by governments to support teaching and research, and infrastructure development, play a great role in determining how universities thrive. However, assuming that all other things remain equal, how universities are individually led or managed is a differentiating factor between success or failure.


Successful universities are ones that ‘do better than their circumstances might have allowed them’, or those able ‘to punch above their weights’, according to Michael Shattock of the University of Warwick Business School, and visiting fellow at the Institute of Education, University of London.


In his book, Managing Successful Universities (2009), Shattock contends that success does not happen overnight because of a one off critical decision by a manager, but comes about as a result of university managers taking many small, but right decisions over a long period of time. These decisions reinforce one another to produce cumulative effect that sustains the organisation in an upward trajectory. Moreover, opportunities for success are significantly enhanced when university leaders and managers are able to create organisational culture which supports and maintains consistency of purpose, as opposed to a culture in which decisions taken at different levels pull the organisation in different directions.


Furthermore, increasingly reforms are being enacted in many jurisdictions that require the universities to act like businesses corporations -- agile and capable of allocating their resources efficiently and effectively; to ‘do more with less’, and to respond quickly to their changing environments without much ado or delay, according to New Public Management theory (NPM).


Traditionally, power in university is diffused amongst professoriate heading different academic units, and which requires university presidents, vice chancellors, or rectors to carry out time-consuming consultations with the collegiate before taking major decisions. However, the ascendency of New Public Management theory has called for the centralization of authority and strengthening of the position of university presidents, vice chancellors, and rectors; and that the academic Deans become the ‘Manager-Deans’ in charge of implementing university visions and strategies within their faculties.


Thus, the university presidents, vice chancellors, and rectors are no longer ‘the first among equals’, but powerful vision makers, plan bearers, motivators, initiators, administrators, mediators, and ‘revolutionaries from on high’, pumps, or “bottlenecks’, among other meaningful characteristics of the difficult job. They better make good of it by striving to make a difference.

*First published in JUVARSITY Newsletter of University of Juba Vol 3 No. 6 November 2020

Monday, October 12, 2020

Thoughts on University Autonomy

 John A. Akec

When I was growing up, I did not see myself working anywhere else except serving as academic at university. And as far as I was concerned and could remember, being a university professor was the most fascinating vocation to pursue. I didn’t care and didn’t matter which particular university I was going to end up at. And by the way, so far, I have no regrets.


Universities in many ways are very similar in what they do, in how they look, their rituals and traditions are the same, and in type of customer base they serve; from Harvard, to Oxford; from Berlin to Paris; from Cape Town to Nairobi and Makerere; you name it. They share awful lot in common. Not surprisingly, universities trace their linage to Greek academies that were established by Plato, Pythagoras, and Sophists back in the sixth century Greece. The departments of humanities at our universities are rooted in Plato academies that were devoted to discovering truth for its own sake, and truth for philosophers destined to be kings. Engineering and science departments originated from Pythagorean academies which taught mathematics and astronomy. And our of social sciences departments drew their inspiration from Sophists who taught rhetoric seen as necessary for success in life.


The modern university began to take shape in the medieval era, and was defined as a “community of masters and students” with a unique personality and soul. This unique personality is identified by “a name and a central location, masters with a degree of autonomy, students, a system of lectures, and a procedure for examinations and degrees…and an administrative structure with its faculties”, according to Clark Kerr.


Early universities were founded and run by religious institutions, mainly Christian monasteries and Islamic madrasas, and support by the kings. Their targets were elitist boys. However, the development of printing press in the sixteenths century enabled books to be published in large numbers, and led to spread of knowledge. It also allowed learning to move from the ancient system of one-to-one instruction, to one-to-many learning mode of today. As universities spread, higher education began to massify with support of the church. Other universities were established as private foundations supported by endowments from wealthy individuals. The number of universities increased from 10 universities between 1800 and 1809, to 131 universities world wide between 1850 and 1859. And by 1990s, the number of university degrees awarded in the United States alone rose to 1.05 million degrees compared to 28,600 in early 1900s. And by 2000, US alone had some 4000 higher education institutions.


Furthermore, from seventeenth century, governments influence on universities began to increase as the religious influence was beginning to wane. In fact, university today can neither be strictly classified as private or public, but unique. And while more than 80% of European universities would classify as ‘public,’ the majority of leading US universities are private foundations, and most civic universities in Britain have foundation status. And compared to American or British universities, the European, Japanese, and Chinese universities are heavily regulated by the state. Whereas, the Anglo-Saxon universities (American, British, and Australian), enjoy more autonomy than anywhere in the world. Influence is exercised by their governments indirectly by their governments through incentive systems and performance based funding.


And as higher education continues to massify globally in order to include those from lower income brackets, public funding to universities has been declining. And the governments are encouraging universities to innovate and reduce overdependence on public funding. And research has also has shown that heavy regulation by the state can stifle creativity and ability of universities to think out of box and react promptly to the opportunities and threats in their operating environments. Hence, the current global trend is tilting towards shifting of the university to the American and British governance models that give universities more autonomy.


Finally, the University of Juba has many values that support our vision. Beside cherishing independent thought, celebration of scholarship, creativity, and initiative; is the University autonomy. Thus, through our governing structures, guided by our internal statues; and what we see to serve the best interests of our students and staff, we will continue to respond promptly to trends and changes in our operating environments, nationally, regionally, and globally.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Towards a Service-Oriented and Borderless University

By John A Akec*

The University of Juba was founded in 1975 on a simple, yet powerful idea of ‘relevance’ – the imperative of addressing itself to tackling the pressing societal needs of the time. Hence, from the late 1970s, and throughout the 1980s, the University of Juba sought to train civil servants for the then autonomous government of Southern Sudan. The initial focus of the studies was on education, natural and environmental studies, social and economic studies, adult education and training, and later, medicine. These were areas of great priority for Southern Sudan. And beginning around 1997, our University started to expand horizontally to offer programmes in diverse professional fields such as law, engineering, business and management, arts and humanities, fine arts, music, and drama. By early 2000, a number of specialized centres were established that included centres of peace and development studies, languages and translation, computer studies, geographical information systems, and diploma programmes covering a wealth of subject areas. And from 2015 to present day, we have added more schools, institutes, and specialized centres. These include: School of Public Service (SPS), School of Mathematics, School of Journalism, Media & Communication Studies, School of Veterinary Sciences, Kuajok Community College, and Graduate College responsible for coordinating the postgraduate programmes across the entire University.


What’s more, the University launched the National Transformational Leadership Institute (NTLI) by 2016, followed by upgrading the Centre of Peace and Development Studies to Institute of Peace, Development, and Security Studies (IPDSS) in 2017. As a result of recent expansions, our student and teaching staff populations have risen from 10,000 students and 291 academic staff in March 2014 to 24,000 students and 800 academic staff in September 2020 respectively. About 2,000 of the student population are postgraduates. This is the highest number of students and academic staff our University has ever recorded since teaching began in October 1977. It is welcome news which will inevitably pose its own challenges in forms of additional spaces for teaching the increased class sizes, and recruitment of additional faculty to teach new curricula. Such ‘externalities’ are inevitable and will have to be managed with creativity and wisdom they deserve.    


And that is not all. In academic year starting January 2021, the University of Juba is planning to launch new schools that include School of Petroleum and Minerals; School of Architecture, Land Management, Regional and Urban Planning; School of Medical Laboratory Sciences; School Public Health & Nursing; and School of Pharmacy. New centres will include a Centre for Law Development at the School of Law, and Centre for Laboratory Technicians Training at the School of Education. The Deans’ Board has also agreed to launch evening undergraduate programmes in law, business and management, social and economic studies, and computer science and information technology starting this academic year 2020/2021.


Furthermore, a new multidisciplinary master of science in entrepreneurship will be launched in this academic year. Areas of focus include agribusiness, environmental innovation, financial innovation, and social entrepreneurship. This master’s programme is being supported by a grant from Regional Universities for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) as part of its community outreach programme that aims at enhancing food and nutritional security, improving agricultural value chain, beefing up local agro-industries, and transfer of agri-technologies. It also aims at creating self-employment opportunities for women and youth.

Moreover, the School of Public Service is planning to team up with the University of Warwick and Open University of UK on the one hand; and the Ministry of Public Service on the other hand, to launch capacity building programme for government officials. A pilot project launch is in the pipeline.

To conclude, Charles R. Van Hise who served as President of the University of Wisconsin in Madison from 1903 to 1918, once declared at the start of his tenure: “I shall never be content until the beneficent influence of the university reaches every family of the state…the borders of the campus are boundaries of the state.” That declaration he called ‘the Wisconsin Idea.’ This ‘Wisconsin Idea” was emulated by others and became the defining feature of the American university model to this day.


If anything, this historical note from American land-grant university gives us every confidence to continue along the path we long began to chart.  


*First published in JUVARSITY Vol 3 No. 4 September 2020

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Why Chance Favors the Prepared Mind?

By John A. Akec*

When the University of Juba announced a contingency Plan C which meant delivering a home-based learning that is supported wholly by arrays of digital technologies, some concerns were expressed by many of our stakeholders (students, parents, and government officials) about the feasibility of such a project in South Sudan’s context. And I do understand their concerns.


And before I delve into addressing such concerns, I would like to explain something about different plans the University of Juba considered for teaching during the Covid-19 pandemic.


First, Plan A was the normal academic calendar that would have seen teaching beginning in May 2020. This plan was rendered useless under Covid-19 lockdown and closure of schools and universities in March 2020. The closure of schools and churches has not been lifted until the date of this writing. Towards the end of May, the University of Juba deliberated on Plans B, C, and D that described different teaching scenarios as follows:


First, Plan B involves a hybrid system of learning in which students mostly (from science-based schools and departments), all first year and all final year students will be taught in small classes that are spread out throughout the day with teaching contact hours reduced by 50%. Under this scenario, students would download lecture notes online or given printed lecture notes during the lecture (for those with no access to internet). However, majority of students from social sciences, arts, and humanities will entirely depend on material delivered over the internet, or printed material delivered through other means, for their home-based distance learning, until situation change.


Second, Plan C expressed the adoption of complete home-based/eLearning approach in which students will have no direct face to face teaching as described earlier in the introduction of this article. Namely, students will use various digital technologies and online resources for their instruction and learning.


Third, Plan D stands for a scenario in which the University of Juba administration and faculty just “wait and see” what the government will decide. The Deans’ Board and the Senate of the University, through their various meetings conducted in recent weeks, flatly rejected Plan D (also called “Do Nothing Scenario”); and proposed Plan B as the best of the two worlds (between doing it in the old conventional way, or doing nothing) in the face of Covid-19 Pandemic, while endorsing Plan C as the minimum scenario to adopt. That is, provide some learning if Pan B does not get government approval.  


Plan B was applauded by most students, while Plan C got a mixed reaction.  Some of our stakeholders approved Plan C as necessary in the face of continued closure of universities, while others condemned it as infeasible, or amounts to “damping down of the quality of university education.” These stakeholders prefer that we wait until such time when it is possible to open all universities. Weak ICT infrastructure in the country and ICT illiteracy among students deem this project impossible, they claimed.


In addressing the above concerns, I presented several arguments.


First, I reminded them that some learning is better than no learning. In fact, studies have shown that long periods spent without engaging in some learning lead to deterioration in learner’s academic and intellectual abilities (this concern was expressed by UNESCO leaders recently in the context of South Sudan).


Second, I urged that the University of Juba as well as all other South Sudan’s universities to see the challenge of teaching in era of pandemic as an opportunity to close the digital divide and catch up with the rest of the world by harnessing the available digital learning technologies to the full potential. In one of my radio talk shows, I reminded listeners about the fact that the opportunity for digital connectivity in South Sudan today are much better than the US and Europe’s in the late 1990s and early 2000’s. I lived in Europe during that time and I can testify to that experience.


Thirdly, that we will provide choices to suit conditions and needs of different students and staff for access to online learning and teaching resources. A special taskforce set up to study opportunities and available digital technologies for online and distance learning, as well as institutional ICT-readiness, has delivered its report. We are also talking to different technology providers to explore how we may improve our digital infrastructure.


Finally, come 31 August 2020, we will start teaching under plan B or C. This goes to support the mantra that “chance favors the prepared mind!”



* Was first published in Juvarsity Vol 03 Issue 03 August 2020

Monday, July 13, 2020

Rebranding of the University of Juba

By John A. Akec

Eagles inspire humans in many ways. They soar up in the sky and defy the gravity to steal a broad view of the earth. We can only look and wish we were eagles to enjoy such a feat. What’s more, as popular story goes, when an eagle hits the age of 40 years, they go up the mountains and spent months shedding their old feathers, and putting on new once, before coming down invigorated to live for another 30 years. Biologists dismiss this story as a myth. But nevertheless, it’s a story that has inspired many a CEO for millennia.

The University of Juba has already passed its 40th year since the teaching began in October 1977. And it is absolutely important to ask ourselves the hardest questions: how are we being perceived by our stakeholders and the general public? In other words, how does our brand name stands today, and how may we maintain our brand name long into the future?

Foremost, we need to remind ourselves that a good brand name is not what you think you are, but what your public believes you really are, be that good or bad. And since our inception, the University of Juba has stood for “Excellence, and Relevance”, and we still do stand for those important values. Yet in changing world and context, we had to rebrand and find a new battle cry some six years ago. Namely, “Inventing the future, transforming society.

Gone are the days when our prime mission was to train civil servants for the then autonomous government of Southern Sudan. Now, our mission in the context of an independent South Sudan has changed and grown to encompass, among other things, a full commitment to “national economic empowerment and social transformation through provision of quality education, pursuit of relevant research, promotion of innovation, facilitation of technology transfer, revival of national cultural heritage, protection of the environment, and service to community.”

This broad mission statement, however, does not mean we want to become all things to all people, but to stand to be counted when tackling pertinent national socioeconomic challenges through research and innovation; as well as providing high quality education to our students, and being of service to the communities in which we are embedded. It should not be a mere  lips service, but a lived reality.

The above goals need to be reflected in our brand. Our brand image and our actions should be in complete harmony.  In the age of social media which has empowered and placed the public in the centre of power, if an institution of higher learning like us does not give them a good story  to to tell, they will give us their own story reflexive of how how they perceive our brand. And that calls for universities to have activity and consistent web presence.

As pertaining to maintaining our image, we have embarked on improving the looks and feel of our campus’ landscape, our entrance gates, our lecture halls, our libraries, our laboratories, and our student spaces. However, we did not stop at the improvement of the physical environment but have contracted KAVIBE, a Kampala-based branding company, to critique the design of our website and propose improvements, review and revamp our logo, and design for us the material for marketing and advocacy. These include University prospectus, flyers, and pull ups.

Yet more importantly, we as University of Juba need to stand for something. This will position us high in the minds of our prospective students and their future employers relative to other institutions of tertiary education, nationally and regionally. We can do this by identifying areas of strength and comparative advantage and strive to excel in them.

The question is: do we want to be known for our high quality research and teaching in engineering, in medicine, in law, in economics, in business, in education, in agriculture, in music and arts, in urban planning, in mathematics, in sciences, in computing? In one or two or all of above? And when we say we are “inventing the future and transforming society”, does our actions match our words?

I do believe that the answer lies in the action of each dean, head department, and lay academic. In short, it depends on all of us making our own contributions and pulling our institutional boat into the shores we want.