Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Serious Challenges Await Higher Education in Post-Referendum South Sudan

By John A. Akec


In post-referendum Sudan, we can be sure of three things. The Nile water will continue to flow from Uganda in Great Lakes through the Republic of South Sudan to sustain livelihood in the North. South Sudan's oil will continue to economically benefit the two neighborly countries of the North and the South. North Sudanese nomads in the border areas will continue to cross into the South in search for water and pastures for their livestock as they have done for centuries. However, what kind of relationships will exist between the higher education institutions in the South and those in the North remain uncertain. This is in light of recent repatriation of three main Southern universities (Juba, Upper Nile, and Bahr El Ghazal) to their original campuses in South Sudan and the reluctance of majority of students, and Northern academics, who form the greater bulk of teaching staff in these universities, to relocate with them as the region prepares itself for independence in July 2011. This situation is particularly aggravated by the absence of a middle-way formula that will allow South Sudan universities to continue to benefit from Northern Sudanese academics while providing job security to the Northern academics and their families.

As of time of writing, there are 9 public and 16 private universities in South Sudan. Of 9 public universities, only 5 are functioning while the remaining 4 are newly instituted and have neither infrastructure nor capacity to admit students in the near future. Between them, the functioning 5 Southern universities host over 25,000 regular students, about 18,000 of which study at University of Juba. Amongst the total student population, approximately 12,000 are from Northern Sudan.

Moreover, there are about 956 North Sudanese academics in 5 Southern Universities, of which 451 are based at University of Juba alone where they form 73% of the estimated 620 academic staff's total head count at that university. Nearly 700 Northerners are employed in administrative, technical, and support roles. In majority of colleges and schools in Southern universities, the number of Northern academics average 65% in all universities. In colleges such as veterinary and medicine, the percentage of Northern academics is higher and may exceed 90% or reach 100%.

On the other hand, the number of South Sudanese students studying in Northern universities is 33,000. About 5,000 of these are studying at Bachelor level; 8,000 are studying for intermediate diploma; while 20,000 are registered on postgraduate and distance education programmes. In South Sudan, about 30,000 students are sitting university entrance exams this year and an estimated 30,000 others are taking the exams in the North. Add to this an approximately 8,000 students sitting equivalent university entrance exams in East Africa, and the figure will soar to around 70,000 students who will be looking for university places in fall of 2011.

The Implications for Future of Higher Education in South Sudan

What does all this amount to? Simply put, there are more teaching staff members from the North in Southern universities than local South Sudanese academics. There are also more South Sudanese students studying in Northern universities than North Sudanese studying in the South. That means, without securing the continuation of North Sudanese academics at Southern universities in short to medium term, these universities will struggle to deliver on their mission adequately and their reopening time may be seriously affected.

Repatriation of three main Southern universities to their bases was initiated as far as 2002. However, the process has been slow due to lack of infrastructure (labs, lecture halls, staff and students residence) and scarcity of funding. The Southern universities received only meager grants from federal government in form of staff salaries and operating costs which is hardly sufficient to rebuild the needed infrastructure. As the referendum approached, the repatriation efforts intensified in 2009 to reach climax by the end of 2010 when the last colleges were expected to have repatriated. However, the process was not smooth as it was not accompanied by provision of needed financial resources, neither from the federal government nor from the government of South Sudan. Vice chancellors did their best within the available limited resources.

The Future of Northern Sudanese Academics and Students in Southern Universities
Until recently, no ready solutions were agreed upon between the federal government and the government of South Sudan regarding the future of Northern Sudanese academic staff members and students in Southern universities after July 2011 when South will become an independent state. Concerned about the uncertain future of the Northern Sudanese citizens in Southern universities and after a hard campaign and lobbying by those affected, the central Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research has recently confirmed that it is now in advanced planning stage of instituting a new university to be called the University of Khartoum North (as reported in Al Sahafa newspaper, 22 March 2011). This university will provide education for students from the North who are currently registered at Southern universities as well as provide employment opportunities for the academic and administrative staff that used to be employed by Southern universities. At the end of their study, students will be awarded degrees that bear the names of their mother universities in the South. A bill is said to have been enacted to form the new university and applications by students to join the University has begun in earnest. South Sudanese students who would like to join the new university are also welcomed, according to the information received by this author. It is worth noting that what appear as a significant gain for Northern Sudanese students and academics may be a loss for South Sudan higher education sector. A win-win solution is yet to be crafted.

There were proposals earlier on to allow all those colleges of South Sudanese universities that have no ready facilities to accommodate students and staff in the South to continue to operate from their Northern bases and then gradually be phased out by mutual agreement between the two governments in the South and the North. In the mean time, any new admissions should start their academic programmes in the South. The advantage of this solution was that in the next five years or so, Southern universities will continue to benefit from Northern academic staff who will continue to commute between campuses in the North and the South, encouraged by an agreed financial package (possibly to be shared by two governments). This could be cheaper than hiring international expatriate staff. This way, the proponents of the idea believed, the institutions of higher education in South Sudan could undergo a smoother transition to self-reliance, just as the North continues to draw benefits from Nile water, South Sudan pastures, and the export of Southern oil through its soil after South Sudan's independence.

However, those proposals were in contradiction with the decision passed by South Sudan Council of Ministers that obliged all the colleges of South Sudan universities to complete repatriation by the end of December 2010, and hence were not pursued by the vice chancellors. If those proposals were pursued, they would have formed the basis for determining a viable solution to some of the negative impacts of secession on higher education institutions in South Sudan.

Moreover, the decision to implement an immediate repatriation of all the colleges created tensions between the top administrations of these universities and the Northern academics staff who favored a phased out approach and a clearer vision about their future in relation to South Sudan referendum vote outcome which has come out overwhelmingly in favor of independence. The academic staff from the North had complained about inadequacy of accommodation provisions for them and their families in the South, thus justifying their call for finding alternative solution for their future from their government. Recent decision by the Chairman of University of Juba Council to relief all Northern Sudanese deans from their positions helped only to reinforce the belief amongst North Sudanese academics that they will not fare in South Sudan universities on the same footing as their Southern Sudanese colleagues.

In this author's view, it is not too late for South Sudan government to review their current hands-off policy on higher education during the transition to independence. For example, it can negotiate to own or have stake in the new entity being established in Khartoum North. This is because if the mountain does not come to the wise, the wise should go to the mountain, to paraphrase an old adage.

Promises and More Promises in the Land of Great Promises
Against this backdrop, the new Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research in the government of South Sudan organized a two-day conference between 18 and 19 February 2011 in order to discuss the challenges and recommend solutions. The conference was attended by the vice chancellors of 8 public Southern universities and the minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research in the federal government. According to the reports given by the vice chancellors, South Sudan universities suffer from acute lack of infrastructure, understaffing, lack of adequate funding, and high dependency on academic staff from the North. In order to close the huge resource deficit and staffing, and make a significant impact, the federal minister of Higher Education, Professor Peter Adwok Nyaba, estimates that the government of South Sudan needs to pump large sums of money into higher education institutions that may be in the region of US $ 500 million.

The conference made a number of recommendations that were presented as a memo signed by vice chancellors of Southern Universities and handed to the President of the government of South Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayardit. The recommendations included the request for urgent release of impounded assets of Southern universities in Khartoum and Kosti, provision of urgent funds for infrastructure development, and financial support for newly instituted universities.

The conference was also informed about government's plans to set up Higher Education Council in South Sudan as well as South Sudan Research Council. There was also a mention of the plans to improve pay structure at Southern universities and to raise the level of funding in order to improve the quality of education in higher educational institutions and attract high qualified teaching staff. In addition, there are plans to set up legal framework and higher education bill that will regulate public and private institutions of higher education in the new country. As of time of writing, any real progress on this front is yet to be reported.

The vice chancellors of 5 operating universities in South Sudan are planning to reopen their universities in mid-May 2011. It is, however, unclear if the newly instituted universities will also begin admitting students any time soon as this depends on timely availability of resources such as academic staff, lecture halls, labs, and accommodation.

Concluding Remarks
While there is no reason to doubt the ability of the government of South Sudan to overcome some of the challenges enumerated above; given the time left until July, 9th 2011, and the fact that no visible progress is being made by these universities in areas such as acquisition of necessary finances for putting up the needed infrastructure, cast great shadows of uncertainty over the future of higher education in South Sudan. In addition to securing funding for building of the infrastructure, plans should be in place to fill in the gap that will be vacated when academic staff members from North Sudan pull out of Southern universities and setup their own university in the North.

It is also worth pointing out that when the future of higher education should have featured prominently in the frequent negotiations between the two ruling partners (SPLM and NCP) on post referendum arrangements on the same par as sharing of oil, Abyei, border demarcation, and Nile water; it is not even on the agenda and probably has never been the subject of discussion between the Sudan's ruling partners. High education is also not on the list of the 60 important issues identified for planning by South Sudan 2011 Taskforce Sub-Committee 3: Preparing the GOSS, under the chairmanship of Dr. Riek Machar, the Vice President of government of South Sudan.
It is possible that a vital barometer of a successful state has been overlooked, and hence has not received the attention it rightly deserves; yet this may come to catch up with the new Republic in a manner akin to that of a city whose dwellers knew about an impending tsunami and yet chose to do nothing to fend themselves from its destructive force.

Far from waiting for the storm to hit us unprepared, this situation demands an urgent action from our political system.


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