We'll build firm foundations for academic independence

Libya plans campus construction and closer UK links as preparation for greater university autonomy, minister tells David Matthews

June 14, 2012

Credit: Alamy
Good to be back: nine in 10 of Libya's 300,000 students are on campus once again, Jamal Elfardag says

Despite the upheaval of civil war and the presence of armed militia groups still stalking the country, 90 per cent of Libya's students are back on campus once again, according to the country's director of universities.

On the first day of the Gulf Education conference, held in London on 28-29 May, Jamal Elfardag, a member of the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, told Times Higher Education about his plans for an ambitious campus building programme; for links with overseas universities to raise the quality of Libyan institutions; and for research collaborations that could tap into "unlimited" funding.

But first the country needs to make up lost ground.

"Over the past year some universities completely stopped teaching," he said. "Since the liberation we have tried to put on some intensive courses." Accordingly, term will finish at the end of August this year.

For all the mismanagement of the Gaddafiera, Libya does not lack students: it has more than 300,000 in a population of around 6.5 million, according to Dr Elfardag. But there are far too many in certain disciplines due to cultural pressures, he added, with families wanting their children to become "doctors or engineers, not technicians".

Young people needed encouragement to enter areas such as computing, construction and design, Dr Elfardag argued, and to undergo work experience to make them more attractive to international employers.

Instead of increasing enrolment any further, the priority now was "to look for the quality not the quantity" and "to have very good staff members ... labs and facilities".

Twenty campuses will be constructed to reduce the strain on overcrowded facilities.

"The buildings can't handle the numbers of students," he said.

Dr Elfardag, a graduate of Newcastle University, insisted that the country could afford such a large building programme because money was "no problem" thanks to oil revenues.

Export model

During the dictatorship of Mu'ammer Gaddafi, Libya struck deals with several UK universities to educate its civil servants, a relationship that will continue under the new government. Students will come to the UK to study nursing, medicine, engineering, economics, basic science and computing.

"Now we're going to increase the number that go abroad for postgraduate studies, and we are expecting thousands to come to the UK in the next two to three years," Dr Elfardag said.

Libya is also looking for British universities to create joint degrees with its institutions, to "help us raise the rank of our universities".

He also mentioned Germany and Canada as other nations that will get a share of Libya's student exports.

Research collaboration with the UK is also a key aim. If British scholars want to collaborate with Libyan partners, "the money is there", particularly in applied science. Asked how much cash was available, Dr Elfardag said it was "unlimited for scientific research".

The Libyan government's research priorities are directed towards natural challenges in the North African nation: the focus will be on environmental science, water conservation, irrigation and farming techniques, he said.

After decades of state control, the government is also trying to introduce elections for university presidents, deans and department heads - a solution to the politicisation of the academy witnessed in post-revolutionary Egypt.

"Now we're trying to have a new rule for universities...and trying to encourage [them] to be independent", he said, which also means finding sources of non-governmental funding.

At present, all university funding comes from the state, although institutions are already being allowed a measure of control over how they spend it, Dr Elfardag said.

Asked about universities' freedom to hire staff, he said that they were able to employ Libyan scholars without the ministry's approval - but needed permission to bring in foreigners because priority was given to locals.

Only "small details" of institutional curricula, such as the need for core courses in subjects including engineering and science, will be determined by the ministry, he added.

The ministry has also asked the country's universities to introduce new information technology and English language courses.

"I can't see universities being completely independent for the next five years - it's quite difficult for them," explained Dr Elfardag, highlighting the need to develop good facilities first.

"You have to prepare them," he added.


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