The agony of public universities
Juba/Wau/Bor/Rumbek - As South Sudan marks its first anniversary, there is little to celebrate in the country’s five public universities. They have been dogged by a litany of problems, leading to the closure of part or whole campuses.
These include lack of lecture rooms, staff houses, student hostels, laboratories, libraries, recreational facilities, manpower - both teaching and non-teaching staff, language barrier and tribalism.
There are five public universities in South Sudan. The oldest ones are the University of Juba, Upper Nile University and the Universtity of Bahr el Ghazal. They were established during the civil war.
Two others, the University of Rumbek and Dr. John Garang Memorial University of Science and Technology in Bor, were established after the signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement.
The oldest and biggest of them all, the University of Juba, is closed since late March because of tribal clashes among students.
The University of Bahr el Ghazal and the Upper Nile University have had their colleges of medicine, health and veterinary sciences closed since early this year due to lack of lecturers.
All has not been well from the onset for the three older universities. The problems started when they were to relocate to the South just before Independence.
They had been moved to Khartoum during the civil war, where they were operating in rented premises and pre-fab structures.
Their relocation delayed. Staff and students were reluctant to move to South Sudan due to lack of facilities.
The facilities in the University of Juba, Upper Nile University and the University of Bahr el Ghazal were not ready due to lack of money.
"We cannot bring students to universities that are not ready and are without halls, accommodation or laboratories," the Undersecretary of the Ministry of Higher Education, Mou Athian, said at the time.
The Government did not put in place plans for rehabilitating the dilapidated facilities like lecture halls, houses for staff and students, and libraries, confirms Andrew Athiha, the chairperson of the Juba University Lecturers Association.
Moreover, the facilities are not enough to accommodate the increased number of students and staff.
“The University of Juba before its transfer to Khartoum had a capacity of 800 students and 150 lecturers. But now it has over 14,000 students,” says Athiha.
During the interim-period, the Government of Southern Sudan offered students free education. But just before Independence, financial constraints escalated, leading to the universities remaining closed most of the year.
The newly established universities have their own share of problems, especially inadequate funding and accommodation.
At Dr. John Garang Memorial University, students sleep in tattered tents. And the Vice-Chancellor of Rumbek University says they cannot open because they have no money.
“How can this big institution be run when there is no budget?” Michael Mangony, the deputy Vice-Chancellor, wonders.
The leader of the South Sudan General Student Union, Emmanuel Lubari, observes that students in all five universities face food shortages, limited accommodation and few lecturers.
He also notes that students from secondary schools where they were taught in Arabic are disadvantaged because English is the medium of instruction at the universities.
All public universities have to deal with swelling numbers as a result of the recent repatriation of South Sudanese from Sudan, the influx of fresh students from secondary schools and students from the recently closed private universities.
“To make matters worse, the government austerity measures have affected funding for most programmes in these universities, such as students feeding programs, accommodation and welfare services,” Lubari says.
The austerity measures have also affected the Government’s plans to introduce three other public universities - in Torit, Yambio and Aweil, which would have eased the pressure on the existing institutions.
University of Juba
Lack of facilities for the growing number of students and lecturers is one of the main problems at the University of Juba.
There are even not enough office chairs, desks and tables are not enough for all the lecturers, says Athiha.
The university lacks running water and electricity, and the drainage system is poor. Running a generator day and night makes the operational cost unsustainable.
Another problem is low salaries for university lecturers as compared to government officials in other ministries. The highest paid lecturer gets SSP 3,000, about $600 in the black market.
Athiba argues that universities should be independent entities provided for under the Universities Act and not under the Ministry of Labour and Public Service, as is the case now.
University of Rumbek
The University of Rumbek, which was to reopen in April, has remained closed due to lack of operational funds and lecturers, and inadequate hostels.
“We do not have facilities to accommodate the huge number of students,” says deputy Vice-Chancellor Mangony.
The university administration, in consultation with the national Ministry of Education, already decided to cut the 2013 admissions by half.
“We admitted over 600 students in 2010 but we cut it down to 300 students. With the austerity measures, we will cut it further to 200 students to match our capacity,” he says.
The administration also decided not to have the third year students back to avoid creating a gap with the second and first year students.
“We can wait to open for first year students until things improve. Meanwhile, we shall not continue with the third year students because that will create a gap,” Mangony explains.
Lack of lecturers is another reason for the closure. Most lecturers were from Sudan and did not return after the announcement of Independence.
“Half of the teaching staff of the University of Rumbek was from Sudan. Now we are left with only a few lecturers,” he says.
In addition, the Ministry of Higher Education owes the university SSP125,000 in tuition fees and another SSP281,000 for operational cost, according to Mangony.
“We need the ministry to first send the students tuition fees for 2012 in order to open for new classes,” he says.
If that money is released, it would help them construct more lecture halls and hostels, he notes.
However, student representatives have called upon the university to at least open for third year students.
“It is better to open for the third year in order for us to complete our studies than delaying us for no reasons,” says Abraham Riing, the chairman of the students union.
Dr John Garang Memorial University
Dr. John Garang Memorial University of Science and Technology in Bor suffers from lack of accommodation, administrative buildings, lecture halls, laboratories and teaching resources.
The university operates in tin-built structures, constructed by Moldovan Company in 2007.
“We have no money to build modern structures,” says Dr. Jok Gai, the dean of the Faculty of Environmental Studies.
Students’ accommodation is deplorable - students sleep in torn tents, pitched behind the university premises.
“How do you expect students who sleep in torn tents to perform well?” Dr. Gai wonders.
The students complain that they are threatened by snakes and that the tents flood when it rains.
They also complain of poor sanitation, caused by poor drainage and uncontrolled dumping of rubbish.
Jok, however, is grateful that the Jonglei state government has provided accommodation for lecturers.
He explains that the university is short of qualified lecturers and technical staff, and relies on lecturers from the University of Juba and other public universities.
The university managed to get one fisheries lecturer from the Texas University of Agriculture through USAID.
Bahr el Ghazal
In Wau, the two colleges of Medicine and Veterinary Sciences, which were closed in March due to shortage of teaching staff and facilities, will not open soon.
According to the Academic Secretary, Dr. Kuol Pal, the institution has not yet been able to secure enough lecturers.
The College of Medicine has 16 teaching staff, only five of whom are lecturers.
He is, however, optimistic that the Ministry of Higher Education, with assistance from IGAD, might secure 22 lecturers for them.
“If the promise by IGAD is fulfilled, we may call back the students at the College of Medicine”, he says.
The university had planned to send teaching assistants for further studies, but it was let down by the Ministry of Higher Education, which did not send the funds.
In addition, library facilities at the university are inadequate. The students are now looking for alternative ways to complete their studies.
“It is difficult to rely on this Government in terms of higher education. I am on my way to find a university in Uganda,” says Julius James, a medical student.
With the recent passing of the Higher Education Act and the inauguration of the National Council of Higher Education, policy makers are hoping that the situation will improve.
The chairperson of the Education Committee in Parliament, Samson Ezekiel, believes it needs a collaborative effort by the Government, parents and students to solve the problems of public universities.
During war time, students were displaced and had no money so the Government intervened to pay their tuition fees, he explains.
“If we are advocating for free education at primary and basic level, then higher education should be taken care of by the parents and students,” he says.
“Free university education should only consider special cases of orphans, children of war heroes and veterans.”
He calls upon employed parents to foot the tuition of their children. He also encourages the administrations of the various universities to provide Arabic students with English crash courses.
The Minister of Higher Education, Peter Nyaba, told The New Nation that higher education is an expensive business and the burden should be shouldered by all the stakeholders.
“The reality is that students have to pay. Even now, with austerity measures in place, how will you run universities without money?” he asked.
Professor Abate of the University of Juba says that since the problems differ from one university to another, solutions should also differ.
“The best way to answer the problems is to say: each university should in the short term devise its own methodology to overcome the challenges,” he notes.
The Principal of the University of Juba, Dr. Wani Sule, says the university should no longer be responsible for students’ welfare.
As for the lack of lecturers, he says the university is trying to engage qualified officials in the Government and from neighbouring countries.
“The university is trying to contract part-time lecturers from the ministries and from neighbouring countries like Uganda, Tanzania and Sudan,” says Sule.
Student leader Lubari also suggests that the teaching of English in secondary schools be improved to give students a good foundation.
“As we prepare to improve the universities, we should first consider improving English language at secondary school level so that students who enter university will not experience language problems,” he says.