In spring 2015, Frederic Wehrey, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, found himself sleeping on a mattress in a garage outside Sirte, Libya. With him were a group of male students from Misurata University. But these students were not paying their way through college by working as mechanics. They were moonlighting as militiamen fighting Islamic State.
That deadly day job didn’t mean that they were neglecting their studies, however. Along with their Kalashnikovs, they had brought with them their economics and electrical engineering homework.
Such is the reality of university life in Libya, Wehrey – an expert in Libyan affairs – tells me. Since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, the desert nation has faced a variety of internal conflicts. A United Nations-backed “unity” government is installed in Tripoli, but it faces opposition from two rival governments and a variety of militias, as well as IS. Cities function, in effect, as independent states. Meanwhile, a worsening economic crisis is responsible for shortages of all kinds, including rolling electricity blackouts. But everyday life must go on – and that includes education.
Supported by the largest oil reserves in Africa, Libyan students and faculty have been an important part of the global academic community for decades, and their current predicament should interest and concern us all. A conference of Libyan academic leaders, held in Tunisia, recently threw light on the many obstacles that they face. Organised jointly by the Washington-based Maghreb Research Center and the Munich-based Hanns Seidel Foundation, one major point of discussion was the impact militia activity is having on Libyan higher education. It is not uncommon for classes to be cancelled on account of nearby fighting. Professors have been abducted for ransom, and students are often tempted away by the relatively high salaries offered by the gunmen.
The security issues in Libya have had more subtle effects as well, changing the classroom dynamic in disturbing ways. Faculty note that students are more apt to question their authority since the revolution, particularly those with ties to militia. Previously routine instructional interactions have more recently been known to end in threats against the academic – and such incidents will inevitably make other faculty think twice before giving a bad grade to a heavily armed undergraduate.
University infrastructure has also suffered. According to one Libyan professor I spoke to, the University of Benghazi suspended classes in 2014 when its campus became the front line in the conflict with IS. Benghazi is the premier university in Libya and was once among the most well respected in the Arab world. Classes reopened in 2015 but had to be held in primary schools throughout the city after the children went home for the day. The Libya Observer reports that classes are scheduled to reopen on campus this September, but some question how quickly the university can return to being fully functional.
Lack of finance is also a big concern. Prior to Gaddafi’s fall, funding came from the central government, but faculty I have interviewed report that the political strife has disrupted that source. Lack of funding for salaries is critical. In May, academics began a strike after the government’s decision to end long-standing arrangements over bonus pay. The action saw final examinations postponed for many students.
Up-to-date textbooks and classroom materials are also scarce. Research databases remain unavailable. Some universities even lack a basic internet connection, which “forces the instructors to use outdated syllabi and old class materials”, according to a US-based Libyan student I spoke to, who previously studied at Misurata. He reports that he is routinely asked by friends and family in Libya for help with accessing research material otherwise unavailable to them.
Given all this, it is unsurprising that many of the best Libyan professors have sought opportunities abroad, leaving less experienced and qualified faculty to fill the void. But the news isn’t all bad. Academic freedom has improved since the days when promotion often depended on overt support of Gaddafi’s leadership, and teaching the dictator’s Green Book – a collection of his political and philosophical tenets – was compulsory. And student groups, beyond government-supported “revolutionary committees”, abound despite all the practical challenges. According to the student I spoke to, there are book clubs, engineering clubs, debate clubs, translation clubs and human development clubs, as well as some student-run newspapers.
Shortages have also inspired collaborations with local communities. In Misurata, student groups have been recruited to teach health and first-aid workshops at local primary schools. Libyan businesses, for their part, have sponsored a variety of student events across the country, engagement that brings free advertising and community goodwill. Such cooperation would not have been necessary before 2011, but the success of such creative, grass-roots efforts gives cause for optimism regarding Libya’s longer-term future.
Partnerships with Western universities will also be crucial to Libya’s ultimate ability to build a healthy education system capable of producing the skilled graduates needed to maintain economic and civic institutions. Only this will allow it to maintain a functional state.
Sadly, many such partnerships, hoped for immediately after the revolution, are on indefinite hold due to the security situation. The first step is to resolve that. Until then, Libyan students and faculty will have to continue to improve their nation’s future as best they can, within a fractured and sometimes dangerous system. The fact that some of them feel that the best way to do so involves a book in one hand and a Kalashnikov in the other tells you how long the road to normality is likely to be.
Darren L. Linvill is an assistant professor in the department of communication at Clemson University in South Carolina.