*By John A. Akec
UNIVERSITIES AND NATION-BUILDING
“Before going to war, Haifa must speak”, Israeli politicians are apt to telling their audience. This is specially so, when showcasing the importance their nation attaches to universities and centres of knowledge and research. The University of Haifa, a flag bearer on national security issues, is one such institution reference is made to when making important decisions central to their nation’s security and its citizens’ wellbeing. Surrounded by innumerable challenges since its inception, Israel has built top notch and highly specialized universities such as Haifa for security studies, Hebrew for agriculture, Ben-Gurion for water and desert research, Technion and Telaviv for science and technology, among others. These universities allow the Jewish nation to effect socio-economic advancement in a region where land is limited, water scarce, and security a nagging concern at all times.
Not only Israel, but its powerful Arab neighbour, Egypt, is using its top ranking universities such as Cairo and Alexandria to develop technologies that would allow expansion of agriculture into its deserts as well as harnessing technologies that optimize water reuse. These are strategic concerns that will occupy Egypt’s policy-makers for generations to come. And their universities are well equipped to give answers which will enhance the quality of decisions being made along the road.
And the world over, all seem to agree that no country can develop or compete in the global marketplace without establishing universities that provide quality education to its youth and conduct research that informs national policies and drives innovation. However, in South Sudan, we still have a long way to go in order to reflect in our national budgets the important mandate placed on universities as generators of knowledge necessary for our socio-economic development.
SOUTH SUDAN’S UNIVERSITIES
We, as a country, have five functioning public universities (Juba, Bahr El Ghazal, Upper Nile, Rumbek, and Dr. John Garang); and 4 proposed universities (Northern Bahr El Ghazal, Torit, Bentiu, and Yambio) that are yet to function when funding becomes available. The functioning public universities are seriously under funded and lack the basic infrastructure such as adequate lecture halls, well-stocked libraries, equipped laboratories, internet, and office space for the teaching staff. The Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning in its annual budgets commits itself to payment of salaries of staff and rarely anything for operation or infrastructure or lab equipment. This funding situation has never changed since independence in 2011.
UNIVERSITY OF JUBA – PROGRESS AND CHALLENGES
University of Juba is the oldest and the largest of South Sudan’s universities. It was established in 1975 in order to train civil servants for then autonomous government of South Sudan. Starting as 4 colleges in 1977 when it admitted its first students, it grew over the years into the current 11 colleges/schools, 7 specialised centres, and two institutes. It is a comprehensive University offering undergraduate programmes in medicine, engineering, agriculture and natural resources, music and fine arts, management sciences, finance and banking, public administration, law, education, economics, and social sciences, among others. Before independence, the University had about 18,000 students, 700 academic staff; and 1000 administrative, technical and support staff. Right after the declaration of independence, the number of students dropped to 9,000 and academic staff to a mere 137.
Ever since the declaration of our independence, the University has faced serious challenges and has been struggling to deliver on its mandate. Under the new administration, the number of academic staff rose from 291 in January 2014 to 574 in July 2016 (still far short of the 700 in June 2011). Due to irregular admission of new students by the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology, the graduation rate was higher than the intake rates from 2011 to 2016. The number of students plummeted to the lowest ever in May 2016 to 6,000 of which 1,000 are at postgraduate level. This academic year, University of Juba does have students in most colleges in third and fifth years because in some years no intake took place, thereby creating those gaps. Nevertheless, with about 4,000 new students expected to join, the student population will rise to 10,000 in October 2016, and it is projected to climb back to 18,000 by October 2018.
By January 2014, about 50% of the academic staff were part-timers. However, over the last two years, progress has been made. Today, part-timer lecturers still make up 28% of the 784 needed teaching force at University of Juba. A marked improvement but ideally the figure of part-timers should not exceed 10%. The University has been able to revive annual graduation ceremonies from 2015, a feat that was abandoned by the University for over 12 years. The number of master programmes is increasing. A postgraduate school to train civil servants has been established since 2015. Student Union has been reconstituted after being banned for 4 years. An Institute for Transformational Leadership targeting women has been launched in January this year in collaboration with UNWomen.
SETTING OF NEW VISION AND MISSION
The new administration that came into office in March 2014 has developed and adopted a new vision and mission that position University of Juba as “a world-class centre of excellence that is committed to national economic empowerment and social transformation through education, research, innovation, entrepreneurship and service to community;” together with core values and a new motto (“Inventing the future, transforming society), to match. The administration has also developed eleven strategic goals to be achieved by 2030 that would see the University grow to 60,000 students with 10% of them being international students, while 20% of academic staff will be international. Besides, 6,000 of the students will be at postgraduate and research levels. In addition, a 15-year physical master plan is being developed to serve the mission of the University and match the expansion of its academic programmes and its services to the community.
A recent survey conducted by the Directorate of Planning, Innovation and Quality Assurance of the University of Juba, found that 77% of students and 51% of academic staff agree that the new University administration has made progress over the last two years. But the report also pointed out the lack of progress in several areas such as stocking libraries with new books, equipping laboratories, lack of internet, lack of constant electric power, and improving the quality of lecture halls.
THE CHALLENGE OF DWINDINLING FUNDING TO UNIVERSITY OF JUBA
In order to maintain this forward momentum and address the shortcomings highlighted by the opinion survey report, the University has reluctantly decided to adjust the tuition fees to reflect the rising market prices caused by the fall of the value of the national currency against the dollar. It was done in such a way not to compete with the inflation, so to speak, but to dampen its damaging effect on the quality of education the University provides to its student. For example, medical students are asked to pay SSP 15,000 (USD 200) compared to SSP 5,000 last academic year 2015/2016 which was worth USD 280 in real terms. Students of Engineering will pay SSP 12,000 (USD 160), Applied Sciences SSP 9,000 (USD 120); economic and social sciences, humanities, and education SSP 6,000 (USD 80); law 10,000 (USD 133), and management sciences SSP 8,000 (USD 106).
And in order to operate effectively, the University would need to raise SSP 240 million (USD 3.2m). The Ministry of Finance will provide in its budget this year some SSP 116 million for salaries, and the University of Juba administration plans to raise SSP 79 million through student tuition fees. However, it would still leave the University with a deficit of SSP 45 million (USD 600,000). What this means is that we may not be able to do all the things we need to do, but would at least see the academic year through.
COMING UNDER CRITICISM
However, the decision by the University of Juba to adjust the tuition fees for the new academic year 2016/2017 in order to offset the negative effect of the rising inflation on its operating budget and maintain purchasing power, has come under fire from the Ministry of Higher Education, Science, and Technology which described it as “burdensome to students and their parents.” Accordingly, the Ministry of Higher Education has issued an order containing a list of standard fees to which all public universities must comply. According to the Ministerial Order dated 6th October 2016 signed by the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology, medical students should pay SSP 3,950 (USD 52 at current market value) compared to last year when they paid SSP 5,000 (which was worth USD 280 at the time); engineering SSP 3,375 (USD 45); economics, social sciences, and humanities colleges SSP 1,950 (USD 26); management sciences SSP 2,245 (USD 29); and law SSP 2,230 (USD 31).
In response, the University of Juba administration has found it difficult to comply with the ministerial order because its implementation would create a deficit of SSP 92 million. There is no mention in the ministerial order how this gap would be bridged. It literally means we will find it extremely difficult to operate and see the academic year through with so low a budget.
THE LOST OF PURCHASING POWER
To fully appreciate the challenges faced by the University of Juba one needs to examine the inflation of prices and how they erode the purchasing power of tuition fees collected from students. For example, in 2014, our monthly operation cost was between SSP 350,000 to SSP 450,000 a month. At that time, were spending about SSP 80,000 a month on fuel and SSP 120, 000 per semester to print out examination answer sheets. Also at that time, a bag of cement cost around SSP 250. From July 2015 to December 2015, the operating cost began to rise to between SSP 1.2 million and SSP 1.4 million a month.
From January 2016, the operating cost exceeded to SSP 4 million a month. The cost of fuel for generators alone went up to SSP 420,000 for 20,000 liters of diesel. Printing of exams answer sheets went up to SSP 600,000 per semester compared to 90,000 in 2014 and early 2015.
In short, everything we purchase to operate has increased 6 to 10 folds, while our income from tuition fees remained the same. And because we did not have the SSP 4 million to spend per a month, we resorted to drastic cutting down of spending. For example, we suspended the payment of annual air tickets and medical insurance to our international staff. We also cut the hours of electricity on the campus by 5 hours. We froze all maintenance works that were planned to be carried out on engineering, science, and medical labs, and Samani Hall in 2016. That means we could barely afford to pay for a quarter of services we used to purchase in 2015 to keep the University running.
What is more, despite the concerns raised about our tuition fees, the value of new fees in real term has actually declined over the past years as opposed to the claim that they have been rising every year. For example, medical students paid SSP 5,000 in academic year 2015/2016 (which was worth USD 280). But now they will be paying SSP 15,000 which, in real term, is USD 200 as opposed to USD 280. This fall in the value of tuition fees applies across all the colleges.
LOW FEES WITHOUT ALTERNATIVE FUNDING - NOT AN OPTION
It is not possible for the University of Juba administration to commit to the fee structure presented by the Ministry of Higher Education Science and Technology, without indications of how the gap would be bridged, and to bridge the gap up front.
In fact, no South Sudanese citizen with any sense of patriotism would accept to see the decline of the University of Juba academic standing because of poor funding.
What is now needed is a solid commitment by all stakeholders to support the University of Juba financially as well as the other public universities in order to fulfil their mandate despite the current economic challenges. Doing so will serve our best national interest.
*The writer is the vice chancellor of University of Juba, South Sudan. He publishes a blog at www.JohnAkecSouthSudan.blogspot.com