The power of small steps

Libya’s education system requires reform, but effective change can come incrementally, says Darren L. Linvill

April 3, 2014

Istanbul has long symbolised the melding of East and West. In this respect, our hotel overlooking the Bosphorus was the ideal location for international scholars, administrators and policy experts to meet and discuss “Expanding Opportunities for Libyan Higher Education”. This conference, hosted by the Hollings Center for International Dialogue, brought together experts from the European Union, the US, Turkey and North Africa among others. Together we explored the challenges facing higher education in Libya. Given the magnitude of the task facing this new democracy, it was a difficult and often humbling discussion.

When Libya has been in the news of late, the stories have seldom been positive. The country faces divisions of every description, including regional, ethnic and ideological ones. Most immediately the new democracy requires a stable security situation and sound legal frameworks to operate. Without these factors meaningful engagement with the international community, both economic and scholarly, will be handicapped. This does not mean, however, that education reform can wait until tomorrow.

The current Libyan education system was hollowed out by the ideology and cronyism of the Gaddafi regime. The humanities and social sciences, in particular, were unvalued and underfunded. Our dialogue addressed a number of reforms that should be enacted so that higher education can effectively contribute to building civil institutions that can foster an effective, transparent democracy. Higher education will also help Libya’s transition to a post-petroleum economy.

A central point of discussion was how to relieve over-burdened educational institutions. Tripoli University was cited as currently enrolling more than 100,000 students, yet it was designed to cope with approximately 30,000. Higher education is viewed as a natural right in Libya and is provided free of charge, along with a stipend – a practice that does not encourage timely graduation. Libyan universities also lack basic academic and career counselling. Cases of multiple changes in majors, and thus longer enrolment, are common.

Another topic of dialogue involved the founding of academic faculty development centres. Such centres would serve as a resource for academic faculty who wish to improve pedagogical practices. Through these offices, Libyan institutions could engage with their own faculty as well as with the international community. There is currently a great deal of global goodwill for Libyan educators, but there are limited means of translating that goodwill into practical support. Centres for faculty development at Libyan institutions could serve as points of contact and a means of facilitating international engagement at the local level.

Ultimately, minor changes such as these may not be enough to fix Libya’s crippled system. Our dialogue touched on other, more sweeping changes, such as privatisation or the founding of international universities. Effective change can come incrementally, however, and should start now, despite the obstacles.

I was enormously impressed with my Libyan counterparts who participated in our Istanbul dialogue. They were aware of the challenges, willing to face them, and amenable to outside perspectives. Libya is not a populous country; reforming Libyan education will require global expertise and continued international support. Our dialogue was productive, but only one step in a lengthy process that will secure democracy for future generations.

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