With no permanent government and militant groups controlling large expanses of territory, Somalia was the ultimate “failed state” for more than two decades.
Higher education all but collapsed: classes at the Somali National University were indefinitely suspended in the early 1990s and just a handful of institutions continued to operate.
Now, stability is returning and reconstruction is under way. The national university reopened last year and the potential for higher education is huge: three-quarters of the East African country’s population is younger than 30, while 46 per cent is below the age of 15.
With a government that remains fragile and ineffective and with the Islamist militant group known as al-Shabab yet to be defeated, significant obstacles to the development of universities remain.
This was highlighted in April by the attack on Garissa University College in Kenya, which was launched by al-Shabab from within Somalia and left 147 people dead.
But Abdulkareem Jama, the executive vice-president of Mogadishu’s City University, argues that developing higher education in Somalia is “easier than [in] most places”.
“I cannot imagine a country where one can have an impact that is so fundamental as regulating higher education or putting in place steps that will improve it,” he said. “Because the political class is small and knows each other, it is easier for us to come up with something, sell it to the minister or president and put it into place.”
Mr Jama, who returned to Somalia in 2009 from a successful career in the US that spanned three decades, is certainly well connected: he served as a senior adviser to the Somalian president and then as the country’s information minister before joining City University, a private, not-for-profit institution.
Mr Jama told Times Higher Education that regulation was the key challenge facing Somalia’s emerging higher education sector. Following the return of peace to much of the country, there has been a proliferation of for-profit universities, with about 40 now operating in the capital alone.
Few of their lecturers have PhDs or even master’s degrees and, while tuition is often in English, many for-profit universities do not provide English language training. Therefore, although these private universities make big profits, the effectiveness of the learning that takes place is questionable, Mr Jama said.
In most countries, this would be a case where the government would be expected to step in but, in Somalia, academics are doing it themselves.
City University, which recruits faculty from across Africa and further afield and is one of the few universities to maintain basic entry standards, is working with similar institutions as part of the Somali Research and Education Network.
This is drawing up basic standards on issues such as the academic qualifications of staff, facilities and curriculum content.
Although the Ministry of Higher Education cannot be expected to enforce these standards yet, Mr Jama hopes that the government can be persuaded to put the list of universities that meet them on its website.
“Students will see this and it will force other universities to meet these standards,” Mr Jama said. “This will be a catalyst for a shake-up which will be helpful for the country and the nation.”
While this sounds simple enough, to outside observers it would appear that security remains the major challenge which may hinder universities’ attempts to attract researchers from outside Somalia.
Most recently, an al-Shabab attack on the Ministry of Higher Education and other government departments in April left 17 people dead. But Mr Jama said that, despite the Garissa attack, al-Shabab had made clear that universities in Somalia were not a target.
This was a nuance that was “not lost on us”, according to Mr Jama, who argued that the dangers in Somalia were “not anywhere close to the perception that people have”.
“Things happen every now and then but it doesn’t stop the country from developing,” he added. “It doesn’t stop thousands of students going to university every day.”
Those students are the key focus for universities in the research and education network, because they offer Somalia’s brightest hope for a more prosperous future. Subjects offered at City University include civil engineering, political science, agriculture and business administration, all of which will be vital for development.
“I am optimistic that higher education will do wonders for the next generation,” Mr Jama said. “They are hungry for education because it is something that most of them haven’t had a chance to do. They are eager.”