When South Sudan gained independence in 2011, one of the most pressing challenges it faced was building institutions of learning. There were hopes, therefore, that higher education would receive a considerable portion of the national budget.
At the time, the nascent republic only had six universities, of which five were public and one private, but the number of students was estimated to be between 25,000 and 30,000. The mentioned universities were largely transferred from Sudan after the separation, and therefore had rather negligible physical infrastructure, their campuses having remained in the north. Only Juba University and the University of Bahr el Ghazal had actual campuses in South Sudan proper.
There were plans by the national government to allocate more funds for building campuses, but very little materialized. Higher education was a low priority for the government. Public universities in particular suffered severely from the austerity measures that the government imposed to manage the plummeting oil prices and the crippling South Sudanese economy. Meanwhile, partisan politics entered campuses and divided students along ethnic and geographical grounds.
The State of Higher Education: Five Years On
Today higher education has for the most part defaulted on the visions from five years ago. Since independence, the government has suffered an economic crises and an unending civil war has grappled the nation since December 2013. Like all government institutions, instead of developing, the universities deteriorated. As long as instability and government underfunding continue, which is likely in the foreseeable future, South Sudan’s universities will also continue to languish.
The most pressing challenge hindering the development of higher education in South Sudan is the widespread violence and instability in the country. Many foreign academics, upon whom the country depends, have left the universities and returned to their countries or sought jobs with international non-governmental organizations that have high-level security precautions.
The instability and interruptions in the learning and academic cycles have forced many students, especially those with means, to leave the country and enroll in universities in neighboring countries. In fact, the number of private institutions of higher education in neighboring Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Sudan is increasing in response to the rising demand of foreign students from South Sudan moving there to finish their studies.
The attraction of South Sudanese to foreign universities is motivated by and large by better learning environments, course duration, curriculum, level of technology, and higher standard of living at low cost. Moreover, abroad South Sudanese are certain of graduating within a specified period of time, and with better standards as compared to domestic universities.
The majority of students, however, that is, those too poor to pay to leave South Sudan, are languishing in refugee camps and in the streets of Juba and other major cities, where rebels and militant groups easily target them for recruitment. The cycle of instability ensues, as displaced youth are joining militias instead of freshman classes.
The government does not have the funds to support institutions of higher education adequately. In February 2012 the central government issued austerity measures in response to the oil production suspensions and stated that all local governments would be subjected to a 10% reduction in their budget allocations. The only universities that are open currently are University of Juba, University of Bahr el Ghazal, University of Western Bahr el Ghazal, University of Northern Bahr el Ghazal, University of Upper Nile University, John Garang University of Science and Technology, St. Mary's University of Juba and the Catholic University of South Sudan. There are also a number of proposed universities for which plans have halted due to the austerity measures.
The budget cuts have impacted faculty salaries and benefits, which are unable to attract and retain quality educators. Academics in South Sudan receive 35 per cent less in salary than their counterparts in East Africa. Faculty also lack both standard equipment and in some cases the knowledge on how to use digital resources at their disposal to teach technology-related coursework. Furthermore, universities are unable to provide housing to scholars due to capacity issues. To remedy these problems many institutions choose to close down for an indeterminate amount of time, which is a cause of worry to the students.
As a result, the most promising educators leave the field and those who remain are underqualified. There is generally a huge student-to-faculty ratio that hinders meaningful teaching and poorly qualified professors, together creating poor inputs for achieving high-performing learning outcomes.
The lack of funds affects more than the ability to hire qualified teachers in the right amounts. Any university also needs lecture theatres, stable electricity and the means to commute to and from the university. The current labor market requires familiarity with modern technology, flexibility, creativity, and social intelligence. The aim of higher education is to harness skills and instill values in the youth so that they are able to engage and contribute to the development of their communities and country. However, the absence of technological tools on campus limits students, setting them up for unemployment. The poor condition of school facilities discourages students who are privy to highly-demanded labor market skills from attending school in South Sudan.
Is there hope?
The recent peace accord between the government and the rebels and the resultant formation of the Government of National Unity might provide resources to reenergize universities at home. In August 2016, the central government also tripled its budget projection for the 2016/2017 fiscal year and asked the IMF and World Bank to fill a $300 million budget gap. However, students and university administrators temper their hopes, knowing that there are profound divisions within the government and the rebel groups themselves. If the last five years are any indication of how the government prioritizes higher education spending, private-sector participating in the education sector will have to be encouraged to fill the vacuum.