South Sudan: The role of University in nation-building (PART I of II)

Category: Writing aboard the Kenya Airways: A story on coming to Rwanda for the first time
Published on Monday, 06 June 2011 22:29
Written by Dr. John Akec, The New Sudan Vision (NSV),
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(Juba, South Sudan) - The last two decades have witnessed a marked expansion in higher education in Sudan. The number of higher education institutions rose from 8 institutions admitting some 11,381 students every year in 1990s, to 110 universities and colleges providing 215,000 places for students annually by 2010. This is an increase of 1889% over 1990 level. The student population, as might be expected, rose from 8,000 in 1990 to a staggering 500,000 in 2011.

South Sudan alone boasts 9 public universities and 16 private universities serving a student population of 25,000 of which 18,000 are at University of Juba. These figures oblige us to ask questions as to why Sudan as a nation attaches such importance to university education and whether or not the same applies to the fledgling nation of South Sudan?

What matters most: few high quality universities or more universities that may sacrifice quality? How best the government of South Sudan can benefit from universities as institutions not just for training of skilled workforce and future leaders but also in nation-building, especially in regards to solving development and governance challenges through funded research carried out at universities?

In trying to answer such questions, the lecture will attempt to highlight the importance of university education for individuals, and most prominently as a means for preparing human capital for administration of government and non-governmental institutions, managing national economy, using university academics in providing objective and informed decision-making in both government and private sector through consultancy services, social and scientific research, government policy   evaluation and analysis, and generation of knowledge that is badly needed for  wealth creation.

 The lecture will also make a brief mention of challenges universities in South Sudan will be facing in the next decade or so and suggests how some of these challenges might be addressed.

Some facts about today's university rankings

The THE-QS World Universities Ranking 2008 placed Harvard at the first place of top 10 world’s universities. Yale, Cambridge, Oxford, California Institute of Technology, Imperial College, University College London, University of Chicago, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Columbia followed in that order. A closer look at the list reveals that only two countries, namely the US and UK dominated the top 10 between them, compared to top 100 where 13 different countries were represented. On the other hand, 33 countries participated in top 200 universities.

Back to Africa, the top 10 are dominated by Egypt (6 universities) and South Africa (4 universities) with following ranking order: Cairo University, Ain Ashams, Cape Town, Pretoria, Stellenbosch, KwaZulu-Natal, Mansoura, German University in Cairo, Helwan, and Asiut.

Amongst the top 100 African universities that are represented, University of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) came in 12th place, Makerere (Uganda) ranks 17th, Ilorin (Nigeria) in 32nd place, University of Zimbabwe in 47th place, University of Addis Ababa in 58th place. Three Sudanese universities made it into the list, and they are: University of Khartoum in 34th place, Sudan University of Science and Technology in 42nd place, and Ahfad University for Women in 61st place.

Overall, 24 African countries are represented in the list of top 100 African universities. The participation is distributed as follows: Egypt (24 universities), Algeria (16), South Africa (15), Morocco (7), Kenya (6), Nigeria (5 ), Tunisia (4), Sudan (3), Ghana (2), Tanzania (2), Mauritius (2), Namibia (2), Uganda (1), Botswana (1), Ethiopia (1), Mozambique (1), Senegal (1), Reunion (1), Zimbabwe (1), Burkina Faso (1), Madagascar (1), Zambia (1), Libya (1), and Rwanda (1).

It is to be noted that North Africa alone is represented by 52 universities (distributed among 5 countries), while 19 African countries are represented by 48 universities. All North African countries have been represented. Many sub-Saharan Africa countries did not feature.

What’s more, a look at the GDP distribution in those two regions of Africa (where majority of North African nations are in middle-income countries category whereas most countries in Sub-Sahara are in the so called failing states, or bottom billion according to former Word Bank and now Oxford's development economist, Paul Collier) will definitely suggest a link to the quality and quantity of their universities as can be said about countries enlisted in top 100 African universities. Hence, this simple analysis does confirm the well sang fact about the African "divide", with sub-Sahara Africa, as usual, trailing behind North Africa in education as well as in other prosperity indicators.

It is worth pointing out that during the global financial crisis in 1980s, many developing countries, notably heavily indebted African nations, were pressured by the international lending institutions (World Bank and IMF) to implement  Structural  Adjustment programmes, which shifted more public funding to primary and secondary education while giving lower priority to higher education. The result was a decline in public higher education (Abeli, 2010, Varghese, 2007) and growth in private higher education, most of which were foreign owned (Varghese, 2006).

Activists in Global Justice Movement partly blame the underfunding of higher education in many African countries for shrinking of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 1990s to below 1980s levels compared to far East and East Asian countries like South Korea, Malaysia and China that resisted structural adjustment ( Manbiot, 2004). While previous studies claimed no link between education and economic growth, recent studies have found education to be key (IIASA, 2008). That is not to underestimate the contribution of civil wars and coups, being land-locked country, and resource-curse (Dutch Disease) (Collier, 2007), all of which can be addressed through university education and research.

It is also a stark warning to the governments and economic planners in the Sub-Sahara African nations that assign low priority to research and education in their annual budget allocation. Hence, any government that would like to get the balance of payment right without investing in research and educational institutions has forgotten its walking stick.

Transitional challenges facing University education in South Sudan 

There are 9 public and 16 private universities in South Sudan. Of 9 public universities, only 5 are functioning while the remaining 4 are newly instituted and have neither infrastructure nor capacity to admit students in the near future. Between them, the functioning 5 Southern universities host over 25,000 regular students, about 18,000 of which study at University of Juba. Amongst the total student population, approximately 12,000 are from Northern Sudan.

Moreover, there are about 840 North Sudanese academics in 5 Southern Universities, of which 450 are based at University of Juba alone where they form 73% of the estimated 620 academic staff's head count. Nearly 900 Northerners are employed in administrative, technical, and supportive roles.

In majority of colleges and schools in Southern universities, the number of Northern academics average 65%. In colleges such as veterinary and medicine, the percentage of Northern academics is higher and may exceed 90% or reach 100%.

On the other hand, the number of South Sudanese students studying in Northern universities is 33,000. About 5,000 of these are studying at Bachelor level; 8,000 are studying for intermediate diploma; while 20,000 are registered on postgraduate and distance education programmes.

In South Sudan, about 30,000 students are sitting university entrance exams this year and an estimated 30,000 others are taking the exams in the North.  Add to this an approximately 8,000 students sitting equivalent university entrance exams in East Africa, and the figure will soar to around 70,000 students who will be looking for university places in fall of 2011.

In the light of relocation of Southern universities in the North to the South and reluctance of great majority of the Northern academics and students to relocate, it will be a great challenge as to how these universities will function and without political will, clear vision and commitment of resources, higher education in South Sudan may collapse in the first 5 years of transition to independence.

*Dr. John Apuruot Akec is the Vice Chancellor of the University of Northern Bhar El Gazel. The Speech was delivered at the University of Juba on June 3rd, 2011 under the theme of "Culture and the Nation in South Sudan." He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..