Home | Comment & Analysis    Thursday 24 November 2011

A friendly dialogue with opposition SPLM-DC leader

By John A. Akec

November 23, 2011 — My recent article in which I reported on the recommendations of the Conference on Future on Higher Education in South Sudan (Sudan Tribune, November 19, 2011) has provoked an angry response from Dr. Lam Akol, the SPLM-DC Chairman and one of papers presenters at the conference. His commentary entitled (Reading Self-Interest into Public Debate can be anything but Academic) was published by Sudan Tribune on November 21, 2011. Below, I have tried to response most of the point raised by Dr. Akol against the comments I made about his position paper regarding expansion in higher education in South Sudan. My responses are clearly marked in italic.

Dr. Lam Akol’s comment:
A friend sent me an internet article Dr John Akec wrote recently following the conclusion of a conference on “Future of Higher Education in South Sudan” held on 14-15 November 2011, in Juba. I take exception to the following provocative assertion he made in the article. Quote.
“All, with the exception of Dr Akol’s paper, urged for need to expand access to higher education. However, it was noted by this author that Akol’s position paper that advocated for fewer universities (maximum of three) was based on personal intuition and preference which sees the whole issue as a zero-sum- game; as opposed to research-informed and evidence-based perspectives bore by cohorts’ papers.” (Emphasis is mine).Unquote.

My comment(John Akec):
I also sent you a copy. I hope you got it. No hard feelings.

Dr. Akol’s comment:
Dr John Akec was making that comment about a paper I presented to the same conference. My paper was entitled “Tertiary Education in South Sudan”. I presented it as an academician and not in the name of my party. I stressed this distinction to the organisers and the audience when I presented the paper, but Dr John Akec would want to insist that SPLM-DC was among the participants! This is not, however, the reason why I am putting pen to paper.

My comment (John Akec):
What is wrong with mentioning your affiliation? SPLM-DC leader is your current job description. Right? Although I presented a paper and have my affiliation as University of Northern Bahr El Ghazal, the opinion expressed in my paper as well as for others, do not represent the opinion of the institutions we are affiliated to. That is the normal convention with many publications with few exceptions. Especially if one is a party leader, it is extremely hard for people to accept the distinction between Dr. Lam Akol, the former academic, and Dr. Lam Akol, the current SPLM-DC leader, and particularly regarding a statement on public issues such expansion or shrinking of number of higher education institutions. This issue also has a political dimension. Small wonder, the news headline had it: SPLM Chairman calls for fewer but stronger public universities (http://www.radiomiraya.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=7241:splm-dc-chairman-calls-for-strengthening-of-only-3-public-universities&catid=85:85&Itemid=278)
In fact, for us the organisers, we accorded you a special respect as the leader of an opposition party and were ready to give you an opportunity to make any remarks you may have on the theme of the conference. However, when you said you had a paper to present, we were doubly delighted, and still gave you a go ahead. It is not very usual for a normal academic to turn up with a paper on the day of the conference and then have schedule interrupted. For us, it was great honour to have you, and still grateful for the gesture, even if some of us came eventually to disagree with your position. This is natural and healthy, intellectually.

Dr. Akol’s comment:
This article is prompted by Akec’s allegation that my paper is just “personal intuition” and not “research-informed and evidence-based”, thus challenging my academic credentials. The insinuation is that somebody of my stature can write a paper that is not “research”ed. I wonder what research has Dr Akec conducted and how many academic papers did he ever publish in reputable journals. Since he claims to have a PhD in mechanical and manufacturing engineering, then I would certainly know the journals he could possibly publish in.

My comment (John Akec):
To be sure, I have no slightest doubt in your academic credentials or abilities. I called your paper personal intuition because your paper made no reference to any previous studies nor did it present any figures (either your own or third parties) to show that keeping the number of Universities to 3 will be adequate for the need of South Sudan. Hence, it is not researched in that sense. It is not evidence-based because you have not shown us that expanding access to higher education is a bad thing for a country.
In contrast, my call for expansion in higher education was backed up by referencing previous works, in addition to secondary or primary data. I know others have gone this path or are facing similar challenges, and it makes great academic sense to consult them. You will notice that most of the papers presented had references at the end. Yours did not. That is why I call it personal intuition.

Dr Akol’s comment:
The truth is that after I presented my paper, Dr Akec followed me to lunch and he sat with me on the same table with two other lecturers from Juba University who listened and contributed to the discussion he raised. At least all of us on that table except him advocated consolidating the meagre resources we have on the only three established universities at the moment. What came out clearly from Dr Akec was a dispirited defence to keep the University he had been VC of going. I actually assured him that he should not be unduly worried as I did not have the power to implement my proposal! Dr Akec knows the two gentlemen who were with us on the same table, and if he insists on distorting facts so as to serve his personal project, I will be left with no choice but to disclose their names for the public to know.

My comment (John Akec):
I did not follow you. As a host of the conference (I chair the ARDF that organised the conference), I invited you to stay and have lunch with us so that we can continue our conversation. I presented a paper on the same topic a day before (which you did not attend), and I was keen to have a dialogue with you on the topic. I thought it was a sensible thing to do. If you were an ordinary speaker, or if I was not the host of the occasion, I would not have hung around you. I am not a very good follower. You can be sure of that. It would have been rude of me not give you courtesy because, by your presence and participation, you have been courteous. So don’t misunderstand that.

Dr. Akol’s comment:
The last four words in the quotation above do not make sense to me, much so his assertion that my paper sees the whole issue as “a zero-sum-game.” I am not sure whether Dr Akec understands what is meant by this expression. If he did he could not have used it in this context. My paper is available with the Secretariat of the conference and was also on the internet. But for the benefit of those who might not have come across it, let me summarise what I said that ruffled the feathers of the Vice Chancellor. Simply put, it says that the facts available on higher education in South Sudan at the moment lead one to the conclusion that it is better for us to consolidate the already established universities of Juba, Upper Nile and Bahr El Ghazal and not to open new ones. I underline the last part of the sentence because Dr John Akec would like to misrepresent facts. In plain English, what this means is that at the moment we should have only three universities. If our situation improves and studies support introducing more universities, this can be considered in the future.Nobody in his right mind would rule out the increase in the number of universities in the distant future.

My comment (John Akec):
Zero-sum-game in this context means opening new universities will imply a loss to already existing universities, according to your argument. When you talk of consolidation, it inherently implies an assumption that we have a fixed pie of resources that are better concentrated on 3 and not distributed them thinly among 9. Is that not a correct reading of your call to have fewer but stronger (well funded, well staffed, well constructed, well everything)? How could you do that without concentrating all the available resources on these?
My argument with you when we shared the lunch table was for us to call for more funding (that is enlarging the pie). And your argument seems to go along that there is no more money than what is already made available. What stops us from asking for more money? ... and so we went around the circle. That is what I called zero-sum-game viewpoint by you. It was not meant to be insult but to express and observation. What is more, I had argued during the discussion of my presentation a day before the universities as non-profit bodies have ability to generate their own resources and amenities that will greatly complements whatever support they will receive from the government. Having been a vice chancellor of a new university for over a year, I am speaking from personal experience. That is why I do not subscribe to zero-sum-game that dominates the arguments of those opposed to expansion of higher education.

Dr. Akol’s comment
Dr Akec opens his statement above thus: “all…..urged for need to expand access to higher education”. A preliminary year student will not fail to discern that expansion of access does not necessarily mean increasing the number of universities. It is possible to expand, if that comes as a result of a serious study, by increasing the number to be admitted to the already existing universities. As an example, in 1970, the University of Khartoum saw the biggest expansion in its history in the Science-based faculties. Admission to the Faculty of Science tripled for the Biology section and doubled for the Mathematics section. The first fed the faculties of Medicine, Pharmacy, Agriculture, Veterinary Science, etc., whereas the second fed the Faculty of Engineering and Architecture, and both fed the Faculty of Science. Because Dr John Akec is preoccupied with holding tenaciously to being a Vice Chancellor, he does not see any solution to the increasing of access to higher education except through keeping or introducing more brief-case universities. Who, now, can be accused of advocating a “zero-sum-game”?

My comment (John Akec):
My position on this was that University such as Juba has already more than 12 colleges and 5 centres, and that it would be better to open new colleges at new universities elsewhere and allow Juba university to improve on what it has already got, rather than continuing to indefinitely expand its colleges in new subject areas. The other benefit of such approach would that that a university at a particular place can bring jobs and development to host communities. I reminded you of the need to avoid concentrating institutions in few urban areas such as Wau, Juba, and Malakal. I will not call this a zero-sum-game but social justice.

Dr. Akol’s comment:
Can Dr John Akec tell us what feasibility studies were carried out to introduce, for example, Northern Bahr El Ghazal University or Rumbek University? What new faculties will be introduced in these universities that are not already there in the existing ones? How many secondary schools to feed these universities with students? etc.

My comment (John Akec):
As far as I understand, these were part of Ingaz’ revolution in higher education which also created University of Upper Nile and University of Bhar El Ghazal. I am sure you are better informed than me about this revolution which was headed by Professor Zubier Mohamed Omer, having yourself served in that government as an erstwhile and the NCP party member. The same Ingaz multiplied the number of states in the South from 3 to 10. Why did we not complain of mushrooming of states? Universities are parts of this legacy to which many of us have their finger prints!

For University of Northern Bhar El Ghazal, I know the citizens of that state had been lobbying for a University called Giirnyang University to be established in Aweil since 1993. In 2005, Professor Moses Machar (founding VC of BG University and one time VC of Upper Nile) was visiting the area in his capacity as VP of the Republic and he conveyed the message from the President of the Republic to institute a university in their area. They had since formed a committee led by Lual Lual Akuei and others that had been mobilising resources for University including allocation of the land. However, it was not until May 2010 when the vice chancellor was appointed.

I don’t know how many secondary schools there are. Do you? What I do know is that 28,000 students took Sudan school certificate in the South this year (excluding those sitting in north and east Africa and elsewhere). A report by Episcopal Church of Sudan estimates that about 30,000 students would be applying for places at university this year. The Citizen newspaper recently reported that 15,000 are legible to apply to university seats but only 3,000 places are available. I expect this number to increase markedly next year. Does that not worry you that Juba, Upper Nile, and Bahr El Ghazal will not cope with such increase in demand? It worries me and I do not want to burry my head in the sand and wish it away. For me, the most natural response when it rains heavily is to get an umbrella so as not to get wet.

Dr. Akol’s comment:
My argument was based on the real difficulties facing our universities at the moment: no enough lecturers, no sufficient buildings, no research facilities, our lecturers are poorly paid, lack of accommodation for both the staff and students, etc. You cannot have a university worth the name without addressing these vital matters. Is Dr Akec denying that these problems do exist? If not, what “evidence” is he looking for? Is Dr Akec not aware that lecturers of Juba University are now on strike because they did not get their salaries for a number of months? Can Dr Akec tell us what percentage of the national budget goes to higher education?

My comment (John Akec):
The delay of salaries was purely administrative. It was not because of luck of funds. I believe we have enough resources to afford opening a few more universities to meet the rising demand. We can talk about strategies and options we can pursue in order to fund it. The crucial thing is funding and everything else can fall in place. However, we cannot do that if we do not see any urgency in responding to increasing demand for university education.

Dr. Akol’s comment:
The thrust of my argument was therefore to make use of the little resources we have to solve these problems in the running three universities. The advantage of increasing access to higher education within existing ones is that duplication in all the above areas will be avoided, thus saving resources.

My comment (John Akec):
Quote: The thrust of my argument was therefore to make use of the little resources we have to solve these problems in the running three universities. Unquote. Guilty! This is what I called zero-sum-game argument. These new universities can generate their own resources and amenities away from government support. However, that is not to say they will still not need some government support but the benefits of expanding will far outweigh the shortcomings. My research references say so!

Dr. Akol’s comment:
Dr John Akec must be careful when peddling unfounded allegations. Everybody knows that he has no case except to defend his current position of being a Vice Chancellor. It does not matter to him what that title serves.

My comment (John Akec):
This is an immense responsibility and great honour to serve my country this way. Few academics become vice chancellors, and even fewer are fortunate to be founding vice chancellors. Having accepted the assignment, I have been passionate to create something of lasting value.

That said, I have always debated my fellows South Sudanese of all backgrounds on countless issues for many years. I have presented papers at conferences on many issues. Why would you or anyone want me to be silent about expansion (or concentration) of higher education in South Sudan? For many years, I have been accused of all sorts of things for expressing my opinion. I remember years ago that someone accused me of writing on the internet because I was idle and had nothing to do. The fact was, in work or out of work, I found time to write about things I want to change or influence. Just Google my name and you will find articles on higher education that predate my appointment in 2010. Hence, rest assured: vice chancellor or not, I will continue to write about things I am passionate about including expansion of higher education.

Dr. Akol’s comment:
His article is hallow because in a conference attended by academicians and researchers, the recommendations must be scientific, concrete and clear-cut; presenting to the Ministry of Higher Education quantifiable, budgeted and implementable recommendations, not the kind of wishy-washy meaningless recommendations we read these days in the mass media. When an academician would like research to render a predetermined result, in Akec’s case a mushrooming of universities, rather than what facts lead to, then he is not worth carrying the title.

My comment(John Akec):
I will let you be the accuser and judge. These titles are transient- here today and gone tomorrow but the principles on which we have based our lives still live on.
Finally, Let me repeat, this is a healthy exchange. No hard feelings.

*The writer is Vice Chancellor of University of Northern Bahr El Ghazal and Academics and Researchers Forum for Development, a think-tank. He edits blog www.JohnAkecSouthSudan.blogspot.com.