Dr Peter Adwok Nyaba, the Minister of Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology; joined by a growing chorus of academic colleagues, believe they can build new universities without necessarily appointing new vice chancellors and without committing new resources to erect the new campuses.
The trouble with such a proposal is that they (the proponents) have not articulated to the public and the rest of us, how such a vision, if we might call it one, can be made to materialize on the ground.
Lest I may be accused of putting the words into the mouth of the minister of Higher Education, it would be instructive for me to first provide the readers with the background as where the idea of establishing new universities without vice chancellors had originated from; and how it came to gain credence in some academic circles as a viable solution to meeting the increasing demand for tertiary education in our country.
It was in early 2010 when Dr. Peter Adwok Nyaba, then minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research in Sudan government of Nationality Unity in Khartoum, presented five bills to Sudan National Legislative Assembly to create five new universities in South Sudan: University of Northern Bhar El Ghazal (Aweil), University of Western Equatoria (Yambio), Torit University of Science and Technology (Torit), University of Bantiu (Bantiu), and Dr. John Garang Memorial University of Science and Technology (Bor). The move was in line with the government of Sudan policy of creating at least one public university in each of Sudan's 30 states. Unlike its counterparts, Dr. John Garang University of Science and Technology had already 200 students on its campus and the bill was merely to transform it from a private community-led institution of higher education into publicly owned and funded university.
The passing of the university bills into law was followed by the appointment of vice chancellors for three of the universities above: University of Northern Bahr El Ghazal, University of Western Equatoria, and Torit University of Science and Technology. The practice then was for the Minister of Higher Education to nominate vice chancellors, and the president of the republic to appoint them by a decree. University of Bantiu never had a vice chancellor appointed.
How New Universities thrived in Post-Independence South Sudan?
By the time South Sudan gained its independence in July 2011, the three brand new universities were celebrating their first anniversary, and naturally, they were at different stages of development and progress. As for University of Northern Bahr El Ghazal (www.unbeg.ed.sd), the University had acquired two sites in and outside Aweil town, had fully furnished administration offices in Khartoum and Aweil; had 32 academic and support staff (including a principal, academic secretary, deans of four proposed colleges, among others); acquired a number of assets such computing equipment, vehicles, and books; had a website and an entry in the Wikipedia; passed and submitted for accreditation academic programmes (curricula) for four proposed colleges, and drafted its academic regulations.
However, three months into South Sudan's independence, and precisely in October 2011, the administrations of three new universities (UNBEG, Torit, and Western Equatoria) received an order from the Ministry of Higher Education that they were requested to down-size from whatever number of staff they had under Sudan government to a number not exceeding 10 in order to "be run as university projects."
According to that letter, vice chancellors were to be the project team leaders, the principals to be the project administrators, in addition to an accountant, a driver, a store keeper, two security guards, and three labourers. The vice chancellors of the new universities were never consulted nor were the terms of reference for running the new university projects defined.
Those of us who wrote to the Minister of Higher Education to protest such a high-handed approach to supervising universities never received any reply to this day. As a result of that ministerial order, University of Northern Bahr El Ghazal had its core staff reduced from 32 to 13; University of Torit had its staff rise from 1(vice chancellor) to 17; the University of Western Equatoria staff rose from 1 (the vice chancellor) to 14. The process of determining the number of staff each university should have was never transparent, explained, or followed their earlier guideline prescribed by the ministerial letter.
Now the reader must be wondering how University of Northern Bahr El Ghazal managed to recruit 32 staff under Sudan government while the two other universities had only the vice chancellors each. The answer is that the Vice Chancellors of Torit and Western Equatoria universities' were equally offered the opportunity to recruit 32 core staff as Northern Bhar El Ghazal but never took the opportunity. However, I have no explanation as to how the University of Northern Bahr El Ghazal ended up in the bottom in terms of number of staff.
Further Moves to strangle new universities
As if above move was not enough to paralyze the new universities, the Minister decided to decapitate them. He made statement in the parliament that the new universities will be downgraded to "be projects to be executed in future." To sway the public opinion to his side, the Minister began to launch a scathing attack on new universities calling them "Inqaz Universities", "Election Universities", and "Road-side declarations by President Bahsir to make unity attractive." He turned down many invitations by the Vice Chancellor of University of Northern Bahr El Ghazal to attend occasions organised by the University that included an occasion to open a newly renovated administration building and inaugurate the launch of short courses in English and ICT in March 2012, which was attended by the President of the Republic, Salva Kiir Mayardit. Asked why the Minister declined the invitations, he replied that that this would amount to "recognition" of the University of Northern Bahr El Ghazal.
When a new National Council for Higher Education for South Sudan was formed in May 2012, the Minister excluded the vice chancellors of new universities from its membership.
In recent reading of the budget of higher education in the National Legislative Assembly, the Minister of Higher Education opposed proposals to make budgetary allocations to new universities apart from core staff salaries.
He made no secret about his intention to recommend to the President of the Republic to relief the vice chancellors of the three Universities and replace with "Project Directors."
Questioned whether the opening of University of Northern Bahr El Ghazal by President Salva Kiir Mayardit in March 2012 would be an obstacle to his recommendation, the Minister answered: "What the people of Northern Bahr El Ghazal did was to hijack the President to open a tukul (a thatched hut) which they called a university."
Apparently, it did not occur to the Minister that the President Kiir Mayardit knew well ahead before leaving Juba that he was going to open a university in Aweil. The press (radio and printed media) was well informed about what the President will do during that visit. The Minister of Higher Education, however, preferred to stay in the dark, despite the letters of invitation by the vice chancellor on his desk, and many telephone calls to his office! The Minister was utterly oblivious to all that.
The Emperor Has No Clothes
The emperor has no clothes, and yet few of us would admit that fact. And here is why. I would have thought that proposing new universities without vice chancellors and without a budgetary allocation is tantamount to aborting them in the bud; and that the public would read the Minister move correctly for what it is. Unfortunately, it seems the proposal is gaining a following in certain quarters of South Sudan academic community.
Most recently, a former colleague at University of Juba, Professor Venasio Muludiang, wrote an opinion piece in the Citizen Newspaper (The Citizen, 19 August 2012 Vol. 7 Issue 219). In his article, Dr. Muldudiang seems to support the Minister's idea of growing new universities that are not necessarily led by vice chancellors. He wrote: "There are reports that these three universities have been downgraded to university projects but still headed by Vice Chancellors....How can university projects be headed by Vice Chancellor, and for how long will they be funded without admitting students?"
To read Dr. Muludiang correctly, we deduce two things that are in line with Dr. Nyaba policy towards new universities. First, these three universities do not need to be founded by vice chancellors. Second, these new universities do not need to be funded, but somehow with passing of time, they will be in position to admit students, and only then will they be funded.
Now what can be more ridiculous than this; when we seem to suggest that we can have eggs without chickens; or we can have chickens without eggs. That is precisely what is being preached by our respectful academic colleagues. Or is it not an academic heresy at its worst, and a self-defeating invention by the Minister of Higher Education; and to which many of our colleagues have chosen to subscribe to with without much thought or critical analysis?
We do not need to argue much that even the currently functioning universities are ongoing project concerns, and calling new universities "projects" need not be construed as downgrading. What is intellectually and academically questionable is to believe that universities can be founded without being led by vice chancellors right from the beginning. Another is to believe these project universities will one day materialize without committing resources to get them off the ground.
One former founding vice chancellor of a new University in Bangladesh sent me an encouraging email a few months ago, and this is what he wrote: "when I started, it was all like war scene...now looking back, I am filled with sense of pride and satisfaction by that unique experience."
The Experience of University of Juba
To give lie to the notion that we can somehow establish new quality universities without appointing capable and visionary vice chancellors to found them, it is worth considering how the University of Juba was founded. From time of inception to when it started to admit students, University of Juba had three vice chancellors. The first vice chancellor was Professor Mohamed Obeid El Mubarak. He was appointed as the vice chancellor of University of Juba for one day and relieved by President Numerie the next day, and then reappointed as the first Vice Chancellor of University of Gezira (where I later did my undergraduate studies as the third batch).
Then President Numeri appointed Professor Abdalla El Tayeb, the renown Khartoum University professor and a world-class thinker, as the second vice chancellor of University of Juba (He is still, albeit inaccurately, registered as the first Vice Chancellor of University of Juba). Professor Abadalla El Tayeb spent just three months and resigned the position, citing: "I did not find a university in Juba, but I found an empty space and a tree!"
Then Professor Samani Abdalla Yacoub was appointed as the third vice chancellor. It was under Samani that the University of Juba began to take off. Tragically, Samani died in airplane crash near Malakal, and Professor Awad Abuszied was appointed to carry on with what Samani and others had started. So, we have the University of Juba today as an established institution that has already produced leaders for our nation. As an academic institution, it had to start right.
It takes a visionary, leadership, perseverance, resilience, and stamina to start a university (I speak from personal experience, short it may seem). Establishing a new University is not a job relegated to "lesser academics" than vice chancellors.
Finally, university projects need funding to get off the ground. Without funding and without right leadership from the start, and no clear terms of reference, what passes as "University projects" under Minister Adwok Nyaba are nothing but rich man's jokes. What's more, I have never ceased to wonder about how long the Ministry of Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology will continue to resist being science and research-led.
The author is the founding vice chancellor of the University of Northern Bahr El Ghazal, South Sudan. He is also chairs Academics and Researchers Forum for Development, an academics-led think-tank registered in South Sudan.