While South Sudan is the newest and one of World’s poorest nations today, it has great advantage of opting to learn from others in order to leap-frog into the twenty first century. That way, South Sudan can avoid costly mistakes of trial-and-error approaches to developmental policy design, including policies regulating private higher education institutions (PHEIs).
Countless nations have long trod that same path, and in the process, have accumulated invaluable lessons and experiences that must not be foregone in favour of wasteful experimentation or vain attempts to reinvent the wheel as currently being witnessed in higher education in South Sudan.
I have waited so long to air my views on recent closure of many private higher education institutions (PHEIs) in my country with a hope of presenting such views within the newly formed National Council of Higher Education. But to my greatest disappointment that was not to be, because the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology who is empowered to nominate the members of the Council, decided that he was not going to be guided by his own Bill and excluded all the new universities, including the University of Northern Bahr El Ghazal from the membership of the National Council of Higher Education.
I have written to the Minister of Higher Education to protest the exclusion and it suffices to say that this Council whose membership is now dominated by the veteran academics of South Sudan would be better advised to include new blood if it is to succeed in designing policies fit for educating the Twitter and Facebook generation, also called millennial generation.
That said, I am now totally absolved to communicate my opinion to the National Council of Higher Education in the public domain in regards South Sudan’s policy on private higher education as I see it, and I am going to argue that South Sudan will be better off starting where others are at this moment in time as opposed to starting where they were many decades ago.
Lock-and-Bolt Policy on Private Higher Education: Will it work?
Last month, the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology in the Republic of South Sudan took a brave decision to close down 22 of the nearly 30 something providers of tertiary education or PHEIs (private higher education institutions). An intensely enraged hotel manager in Juba who was studying human resource management in one of the affected PHEIs told the author: "We cannot find fuel… now we cannot find education. This is an incitement of public anger against our government. What else are we left to do? Play cards or go to disco? How beneficial is that to our wellbeing?"
"Professor, I am an orphan. I lost my father in war. With these private institutions I could work to pay my fees and at the same time support my family. Now I have no idea what to do!" said another young man affected by the closure. And to be honest, I have no idea what he can do, save putting his cry of anguish to print in the hope of making it heard by many more people far afield. On his part, the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology, Dr. Peter Adwok Nyaba, maintains that he intends to: "transform the education system from quantity to quality. This is not to deny people the right to education, but we want our people to be highly educated in a correct and legal way."
But precisely denying them education is what this decision amounts to when the Ministry of Higher Education under the stewardship of Dr. Nyaba decides to lock up the private higher education institutions (PHEIs) and send students home in the promise of providing ’quality education’ which no one currently possesses and no one knows when it is going to materialize.
It is not unlike preventing children from feeding on bread crumbs within their reach; and sending them to bed with empty stomachs with a promise of waking up in the following morning with cake on their plates. It is no exaggeration saying that not many of these children will be persuaded by the promise to let go of few crumbs they lay hands on, let alone the grownup Ex-SPLA combatants and many working adults whose education was interrupted by war and who are now looking for second-chance themselves, the opportunity that only private institutions have been able to provide. Little something is better than nothing, conventional wisdom would tell.
Quality, as I perceive it, must necessarily be preceded by quantity. It is neither a commodity that can be bought off the shelf, nor an event that can be launched like a new book publication. In fact, quality is a continuous process of improving what is at hand and is like a sea without shores that we can never land on eventually. Quality education in particular is extremely elusive concept that melts away like desert mirage once we approach it. That means, if we want to place ’quality’ as a precondition for expanding opportunities in higher education in both public and private sector, as the Ministry of Higher Education would want us believe, then South Sudanese will have to wait for long time to come with fewer opportunities to study at post secondary level; unless the quality dogma is reviewed. The sooner this is done, the better.
However, it would be foolhardy of me to deny that there are no genuine concerns regarding the quality of education provided by private and foreign owned institutions in South Sudan. It is how we deal with these concerns is what I find rather irksome. A quick glance around our vast continent and farther afield in the wider World could provide us with ample clues as to how we might handle these concerns more sensibly.
Lessons from Africa and Elsewhere
First we must admit that higher education is expensive and only public funding can afford the kind of infrastructure most universities require to function satisfactorily such as labs, well stocked libraries, and research and training facilities.
That explains why in Europe 95 percent of tertiary education is funded and owned by the state, and in the US, more than 80 percent of student population attends public universities (Varghese, 2004). In East Asia and Central Americas, private sector plays a dominant role in higher education. In Africa, structural adjustment policies in 1980s channeled more public funding to general education (then perceived as having greater return on investment), away from public higher education. Private sector moved in to meet the increasing social demand for higher education. As of 2009 (Varghese, 2009), there were more than 468 private higher education institutions (PHEIs) in Africa compared to 200 public universities. However, PHEIs in Africa account for one third of total student enrollment. Private tertiary education sector tends to focus on humanities, business studies, ICT subjects, and commercial subjects that are not easily provided by public universities.
Many African countries have legislations that define the steps to be followed leading to registration and accreditation and recognition of PHEIs. In many other African countries, some PHEIs are neither registered nor recognized by the accrediting bodies, yet still attract students (Njeuma, 2003). Cameroon is one such example where many private institutions operate illegally, and yet many of their graduates still find jobs. What that demonstrates is that even bad education where it might be found is still better than no education. In India, 90 percent of undergraduate education is carried out by PHEI’s that are funded by the government.
Another important issue raised by recent report into state of PHEIs in South Sudan that was commissioned by the Ministry of Higher Education concerns the lack of entry qualification for a large number of students attending private universities. The Ministry was alarmed to know that many of those accepted have no formal qualifications such Sudan School Certificate or its equivalent. However, this is precisely one of the main reasons many "second-chance" learners do turn to private sector in South Sudan because to apply to public universities they need to have Sudan School certificate or equivalent. PHEIs have fewer demands than public universities. This situation is a result of war. Even without war, there could be still be a significant number of people who drop out of school and later on in life decide to seek university qualification.
Small wonder, many countries in Europe, US, and Africa have bridging or access courses that allow those who had dropped out of formal education to study at university. For example, South Africa as a country that suffered from the discriminatory effect of Apartheid on its black majority has developed an elaborate system of ascension for those seeking second-chance to join university. South Africa also has 71 PHEIs, the highest number of PHEIs on the continent. At the moment, South Sudan has none of bridging courses. Therefore, why can South Sudan not learn from the enormous wealth of experience and well tried models of others as opposed to trying to reinvent the wheel?
Use of Soft Power in Place of Lock-and- Bolt Policies
What the Ministry of Higher Education is currently doing is similar to attempt to fix prices of essential commodities on the market by sending troops to close down shops that do not comply with government price tag list. Many economist long wrong footed many a politician on this approach for millennia. It just does not work. Prices of commodities on the market can only be lowered by increasing supply. In the like manner, higher education is now a marketable commodity that can be shaped by market forces of demand and supply. Hence government can improve the quality of education provided by both public and private PHEIs by encouraging competition, providing incentives, and recognizing good performers through publication of league tables and award of marks of excellence. No need for courts and tear gas! The fittest will thrive and the weak ones will die a natural death.
It goes without saying that the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology should expends its energies fixing the battered public higher education sector, before turning to address challenges facing higher education in private sector (or at least for now). Moreover, the current resistance by the Ministry of Higher Education to the expansion of public higher education in our country will only have contrary effect. That is, it will accelerate the mushrooming of PHEIs; legally or otherwise.
The damage being incurred by the present policies will be apparent in the next decade from now, by which time it would be too late to do anything to recover many missed opportunities for charting a better path that would make South Sudan more competitive in the global marketplace.by John A. Akec, from Sudan Tribune.