South Sudan's prosperity depends on more public universities serving more students — and focussing on S&T, not humanities, says John A. Akec.
South Sudan, a country emerging out of devastating conflict, has one of the world's worst human development indicators. Its only hope for self-reliance and competitiveness in the global economy is to turn its back on its elitist model of higher education.
The nation has huge potential to exploit its resources for energy, agriculture, and water. To harness these, educational policymakers should put greater emphasis on teaching science and technology subjects.
And rather than opposing such a move, development partners must support the strategy and then put resources where their mouth is.
Sudan, of which South Sudan was a part until July 2011, ran an elitist model of higher education it inherited from colonial administration. Until the 1990s, the country had three public universities offering just a few thousand places for some 100,000 students taking university entrance exams every year.
Egypt, which by then was operating a mass higher education policy, provided more opportunities for Sudanese university students.
Sudan's public higher education was underfunded, and relied too much on an outdated, elitist model of capacity building that favoured only the brightest — a small section of the potential student population.
This was not a uniquely Sudanese phenomenon. Under the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) imposed by the IMF and World Bank on heavily indebted nations of Sub-Saharan Africa in the 1980s, public higher education funding was withdrawn in favour of general education.
That was when private providers moved in to meet the demand for higher education in Africa. This kicked off a trend that commoditised and globalised higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Private and profitable
And that was also when the continent began to trail behind Asia in terms of economic growth. Between 1960 and 2002, the average growth of Asian economies was 2 per cent, while Sub-Saharan Africa economies contracted between 1974 to the mid-1990s. As a result, by 2002 the GDP per capita in Sub-Saharan Africa was 11 per cent lower than what it was in 1974.
The effects of economic decline still reverberate across the continent. And a key reason is that private higher education is driven purely by commercial considerations that are geared towards maximizing profit margins for investors.
This means that private universities in Africa have focused mostly on the humanities — subjects such as business, law, and IT — while neglecting engineering and applied sciences, which require investment in expensive infrastructure and equipment.
Yet, technical skills and know-how, that only science-based subjects can impart, are precisely what all nations need in order to thrive and exploit their natural resources, develop value-added industries and manufacturing bases, and attract foreign direct investment.
Room for expansion
Sudan, however, eventually began to adopt a mass higher education strategy. The number of higher education institutions soared from three in 1990 to twenty six in 2011. And the total student enrolment at Sudanese universities has increased from 8,000 in 1989, to 500,000 in 2011.
Out of this number, South Sudan's share is a mere 13,000 at best. This leaves ample room for the country to boost its total student enrolment at university by expanding higher education institutions.
As of July 2011, South Sudan had nine public universities, of which four are still setting up the necessary infrastructure and only five have students on their campuses. This year, there are 15,000 applicants competing for 3,000 places at these five functioning universities.
By any standard, this system sends too many students out to the world with no skills and no access to higher education. As demand increases in time, and supply stays static, the situation can only deteriorate.
Current thinking amongst education planners in South Sudan favours a policy of erecting fewer but well maintained universities. But to be competitive in the global marketplace, the country must turn out a skilled workforce in larger numbers every year, and at a faster rate than would be produced by a narrower, elitist model of higher education.
Actions for change
South Sudan should have at least one public university in each of its ten states. And it must put in place state-of-the-art schemes to address funding challenges and improve quality in teaching math, basic sciences, and English at school level.
Pay structure for university teachers must change to attract those academics who have abandoned the lecture hall for greener pastures (working for the government or nongovernmental organisations), as well as expat academics.
Students and parents must contribute to educational costs through self-financing and loans. And more loans must be available to students studying science and technology.
Financing a new drive for public education will need support from the country as well as development partners. Creating a 'petroleum fund' that draws from oilfield revenues could provide vital support for general and higher education.
Development partners can help financially or in kind — by building labs, donating books and equipment, and funding international staff exchange programmes between universities.
And ultimately, each public university must choose to become a centre of excellence in one or more subject areas, and avoid replicating programmes. Sound policies and coordination will be crucial for their success, and for the country's prospects for building a technical workforce for development.
John Apuruot Akec is the vice chancellor of University of Northern Bahr El Ghazal, and chairperson of Academics and Researcher Forum for Development, a think-tank registered in South Sudan. He blogs at www.JohnAkecSouthSudan.blogspot.com, and can be reached at www.unbeg.edu.sd.