No sooner had the celebrations that followed the Republic of South Sudan's independence from its northern neighbour in July last year died down than the country's fledgling government found itself facing serious challenges, a number of them education-related.
The conflict between north and south has been ongoing since the 1950s. When the south finally achieved its independence from Khartoum on 9 July 2011, many observers felt that the new nation's prospects were promising. South Sudan has agricultural advantages beyond its less fortunate neighbours Ethiopia and Kenya. It also has large reserves of oil, gold and other minerals.
After independence, the government of South Sudan wrested control of higher education from Khartoum, but it soon found that developing the sector was not going to be as simple as taking over the country's public universities: the aftermath of two civil wars had left the institutions starved of funding and resources.
"From 2005 (when the second civil war ended) to July 2011, higher education institutions were under the control of the federal government in Khartoum, and they received no more than 0.2 per cent of the national budget," says John Akec, vice-chancellor of the University of Northern Bahr El Ghazal.
The Sudanese government supported academic staff and paid a small contribution to their development, says Akec. The universities charged a fee to students in order to maintain their infrastructure and to meet their operating costs, but this still left them underfunded - to the extent that the University of Juba relocated to the north of Sudan for 20 years. It has only just begun to re-establish itself in Juba, South Sudan's capital, and many of its academic staff remain in Khartoum.
So even though the new government of South Sudan allocated 3 per cent of its first national budget to the development of higher education and 7 per cent to primary and secondary education, the sector still faces a number of problems.
Low schooling standards a concern
Akec explains: "There are so many challenges to higher education in South Sudan, including weak standards at a school level, poor infrastructure, a shortage of academic staff, the lack of funding for science and technology research that will have a socio-economic impact, and there are few university places for those that want to study."
The future of higher education is dependent on the development of general education at the primary and secondary levels. Tony Calderbank, country director for the British Council in South Sudan, says that this focus is necessary because around 80 per cent of the South Sudanese population is illiterate. "So it may be that they are concerned about establishing a system of universities, but the South Sudanese government's priorities are on primary and secondary education - the focus is especially on the education of girls," he says.
It is important to South Sudan to improve gender equality because this is one of the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals. Juba hopes to create a general education strategic plan with the help of the UN through Unicef and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.
The development of general education is imperative: without it, many argue, there is no future for the country's universities. Part of the challenge is to standardise the language in which schoolchildren are taught. South Sudan has chosen English as its state language, but many schools still teach in Arabic - the language favoured by Sudan before independence. Yet this hurdle is a small one compared with the challenges posed to the country by interruptions in oil production and the need for austerity measures.
Media reports suggest that the government originally allocated only 2 per cent to the higher education budget, which was then increased to 3 per cent after members of parliament expressed their concerns. Yet Salah Khaled - head of Unesco's Juba office - argues that there was, in fact, no increase.
"There was actually a budget cut and not a budget increase," he says. "With the austerity plans in place since the shutting down of oil production (which was suspended earlier this year owing to a dispute with the north over revenue-sharing arrangements), the Ministry of General Education and Instruction has cut its annual budget by 10 per cent and the Ministry of Higher Education has suffered a cut of 54 per cent of its own budget."
Khaled believes that many of the government's plans to develop the educational sector will not materialise, and so the construction of new educational facilities may cease.
And if no progress is made to develop higher education, some fear that South Sudan will continue to suffer from the brain drain that President Salva Kiir claims he wants to end. "Over the past decades, South Sudan has lost its best- educated people to other countries, and many fled during the war," he said in August last year.
Khaled says that 4,000 South Sudanese students are still studying overseas and that some of them receive government support to do so. Some people, however, argue that this money should be spent on developing South Sudan's own academic institutions and research activities.
New public universities have been opened recently - including Northern Bahr El Ghazal, Torit and Western Equatoria; and more are expected. The president himself opened a new administration building at Akec's University of Northern Bahr El Ghazal on 15 March, thereby giving it his seal of approval. The vice-chancellor is nevertheless sceptical whether his institution will see any benefit from the governmental budget because the higher education minister, Peter Adwok, argues that it was opened by Sudan without the blessing of South Sudan's government.
'Fradulent' private providers shut
State scrutiny of the sector looks set to remain keen. According to the Paris-based independent news website Sudan Tribune, earlier this month the minister announced the immediate closure of all privately owned learning institutions.
Adwok said that a ministerial committee had decided that standards at the institutions, including a number calling themselves universities, were too low to allow them to keep their licences.
Referring to private providers' "fraudulent fleecing of South Sudanese citizens", Adwok said he wanted to "transform the education system from quantity to quality. This is not to deny people the right to education, but we want our people to be highly educated in a correct and legal way."
Kiir's administration appears to have recognised that education is the basis for the creation of social and economic prosperity in the new state. It remains to be seen whether it will provide South Sudan's public higher education sector with the financial and staffing resources, infrastructure and quality students it needs to carry out that task.
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