Sudan’s conflict is exacerbating the strain on South Sudanese universities

It is proving difficult to accommodate even the fraction of South Sudanese students who have already made it back home, says Kuyok Abol Kuyok

July 25, 2023
A building on fire in the Sudan war
Source: iStock

The hideous conflict between the Sudan Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Force could have horrendous consequences not just for Sudan’s own higher education system but also for that of its southern neighbour.

This is because although Sudan split into two countries at the end of its long civil war in 2011, those fragments remain closely connected by geography and history. Even 12 years after their own country became independent, there were about 2 million South Sudanese living in Sudan when the latest conflict broke out.

The four freedoms agreement guarantees free movement between the two countries, and many South Sudanese fled north to avoid their country’s own internal conflicts in 2013 and 2016. Apart from the fact that the south is still recovering from those wars – a poor humanitarian situation aggravated by climate shocks – one of the main reasons so many South Sudanese remained in the north was to avoid disrupting their children’s education, including university study.

However, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimate that the war in Sudan has compelled more than 180,000 people, most of them South Sudanese, to move southwards. All of this as the conflict threatens the oil exports on which South Sudan relies for 85 per cent of its GDP, which are directed through Port Sudan, the main Sudanese port on the Red Sea. Any disruption of those exports will have disastrous repercussions for landlocked South Sudan, impacting its ability to offer essential social services, including education.

South Sudan’s students are already heavily dependent on foreign scholarships. The nascent country only has only five public universities, plus a handful of faith-based and private institutions, and it lacks some key science specialisations, especially pharmacy, dentistry, agricultural economics and petroleum engineering. In 2022, for instance, only 51 per cent of the 13,667 South Sudanese students who applied were granted university admission. The other half competed for scholarships awarded by countries such as Egypt, Morocco, Ethiopia and, most of all, Sudan.

Khartoum offers 500 scholarships a year for South Sudanese students, and it waived the international fee requirement for them in 2016. This encouraged many more South Sudanese to seek university education in Sudan, particularly as the affinity of the education systems north and south of the border already made Sudan the favourite alternative destination for South Sudanese students.

It is believed that there are about 9,000 South Sudanese students (including private or self-sponsored students) enrolled at various Sudanese universities – primarily the University of Khartoum, Ahfad University for Women and the University of Bahri – the last of which was founded in 2011 on the campus that South Sudan’s University of Juba had occupied since it moved north in 1989, after the outbreak of the Sudanese civil war.

South Sudan’s Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology estimates that since the outbreak of the latest conflict in Khartoum in mid-April, about 2,000 of the 9,000 South Sudanese university students in Sudan have returned home. This implies that a lot remain stranded, many of whom are believed to want to continue their studies in the south.

The trouble is that although the South Sudanese authorities have empathy for their situation, it is proving difficult to accommodate even the fraction of South Sudanese students who have already made it back home.

First, because of the perilous nature of the journey, most of the returnees lack appropriate documents, such as transcripts. Second, some South Sudanese professors indicate that variations in the grading system in Sudan could pose obstacles to enrolment. And most significantly, even when the relevant specialism is available in the south, limitations in South Sudan’s university infrastructure and equipment prevent institutions from taking on more students.

Another problem is that Sudan’s scholarships for South Sudanese students will most likely be suspended until normality returns in Khartoum, piling even more pressure on capacity on the south.

And since no one knows when the latest war will end, it is hard to predict a positive outcome, either for South Sudan’s domestic students or for those still stranded in Sudan.

Kuyok Abol Kuyok is an adjunct associate professor at the University of Juba, South Sudan.

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