South Sudan has hit the headlines in recent weeks on account of the famine declared in parts of the fledgling country. The famine has been condemned as a man-made crisis, brought about by the country’s civil war. And some in the West have worried that providing famine relief will allow the fighters to go on wreaking havoc with impunity.
The civil war broke out just two years after South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011, following decades of fighting. Universities have not been spared its effects. The buildings and property of Upper Nile University in Malakal and John Garang Memorial University in Bor were plundered when their towns became ensnared in the conflict, and some staff and students fled.
The hostilities exacerbate the country’s economic woes. South Sudan relies on oil for 98 per cent of its income, but most of that oil is in the Upper Nile region, the centre of the fighting. Oil production has been slashed from 490,000 barrels a day in 2011 to 220,000 in late 2016. The low price of crude oil has also taken its toll; according to the World Bank, South Sudan’s gross domestic product shrank by 6.5 per cent in 2015, and inflation stands at a ruinous 850 per cent.
In this troubling economic context, government institutions fight for the limited resources available, and education has not fared well. Spending on higher education has consistently remained below 1 per cent of the government’s total budget.
Against all the odds, however, the country’s five national universities continue to provide education to approximately 19,000 undergraduate and 1,000 postgraduate students, as well as rendering other vital services to the wider polity. In part, this is because the universities contain some of the most educated, experienced and talented people. Their rigorous recruitment procedures insulate them against the corrupt practices rife elsewhere in the civil service.
All the leaders of South Sudan’s public universities were replaced in 2014 by presidential decree. However, the new appointees appear to have been selected primarily on the basis of their strong academic backgrounds. Many were educated in elite institutions in the US, UK and continental Europe, and many have held positions in universities abroad, in both Africa and the West.
Their ethos of university governance is undoubtedly shaped by their Western educational experiences. This helps to explain their commitment to high standards, academic freedom, innovation, partnership, hard work and imaginative, transparent and collegial management. Through their forums and their membership of the National Council for Higher Education, they both ensure that academic standards are maintained and exert influence on national education policy.
They have introduced flexible admission procedures to widen access for mature and postgraduate students and to boost their institutions’ revenue streams – with the money used appropriately, to pay staff and procure services and equipment. And they collaborate on teaching. Upper Nile University has been relocated to Juba and its displaced students use the University of Juba’s lecture halls and library. Meanwhile, Juba’s professors teach both their own students and, part-time, those of John Garang, which is still in Bor. Academics at other universities supervise some of Juba’s graduate students.
The vice-chancellors also foster academic partnerships with similar institutions in the region or further afield. In 2011, Juba agreed a three-year venture with Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University “to rebuild higher education in agriculture to support food security, economic growth and peace efforts”. The agreement included graduate training for Juba staff at the American institution. And the University of Bahr El-Ghazal has forged a similar arrangement with the University of Oslo in Norway and the University of Makerere in Uganda to train its academic staff.
Western links have also yielded additional funding. For example, prior to independence, Juba secured $6.5 million (£5.3 million) from the Norwegian and US governments to build a new college of law. The new buildings, opened by South Sudan’s president in April 2015, also provide accommodation for two other colleges, a school, a postgraduate research centre and an institute.
And in 2013, through the involvement of Julia Aker Duany, the current vice-chancellor of John Garang, USAID awarded Indiana University, her alma mater, $4.2 million to promote women’s access to higher education in South Sudan. The project involved Upper Nile and Juba and led to the establishment of Juba’s National Institute for Transformational Leadership in 2015, which is aimed particularly at women.
Probity is a virtue in high demand in South Sudan, and the vice-chancellors’ possession of it confers on them a rare national appreciation and recognition. And they draw on this social capital to garner further resources for their universities. They beseech members of university councils – who are often influential government ministers or senior members of parliament – to intercede on their behalf with various ministries. In a country where informal structures are more dynamic than official bureaucracy, this modus operandi often yields impressive results. For instance, the government raised the wages of university employees in 2015, which has attracted some academics back into the sector.
The semblance of normality the vice-chancellors maintain within their institutions is also an example to other government institutions. No doubt their success cannot all be attributed to their Western experience, but it is surely a big part of it. The effect of international aid on South Sudan – and Africa in general – may be debatable, but, in higher education, Western influence and assistance is overwhelmingly positive.
Kuyok Abol Kuyok is associate professor in the College of Education at the University of Juba, South Sudan.