In late 2011, after he graduated from high school in Benghazi, Ali Elrayes was working for a non-governmental organization helping Libyan refugees from the civil war that had just toppled ex-dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Today, the 21-year-old is studying electrical engineering at Michigan State University where he’s facing a more mundane challenge: Making ends meet.
Elrayes is one of more than 20,000 Libyans studying abroad on government scholarships that have a spotty record of paying students on time. While he and others said the scholarships have been vital in helping around 5,700 Libyans enroll annually in universities and professional certification programs in Britain, the United States and elsewhere, they’re marked by overdue stipends and other administrative problems, including what some claim is an indiscriminate system for granting awards.
“It’s a progression of accumulated problems that originate in Libya from political instability that ends up with us not receiving funds,” he said. “Payments will be delayed for three months, then they’ll give it all in one lump. So we save from month to month.”
Libyan officials who provided the estimate of 20,000 students abroad say they are doing the best they can under extremely difficult circumstances. And they say the programs are politically popular. “We are under pressure from other public sectors to issue another decree to send 55,000 students to study abroad,” said Mohamed Alsllabi, the head of the student scholarship program at the education ministry.
For decades, in a bid to boost its professional class, oil-rich Libya has offered scholarships to talented college students admitted to foreign graduate schools. In recent years, the scholarships were expanded to give gifted high school students like Elrayes a chance to receive bachelor’s degrees abroad. Since the civil war ended, the Libyan government has also sought to provide former rebel fighters a chance to study abroad, if a foreign institution accepts them.
During the civil war, the United Nations froze Libyan assets, halting the Ministry of Higher Education’s payments of monthly allowances, health insurance and tuition and fees for Libyan students abroad. As the violence waned, payments resumed.
Since late 2013, however, as Islamic militants, former Libyan army officers and others began fighting for control of the unstable country, the payments have again become sporadic.
“Due to the financial constraints caused by the recent events in Libya, CBIE [Canadian Bureau for International Education] is unable to guarantee funding for any new students,” said a June 9, 2014 press release from the CBIE, a nonprofit organization that administers the scholarships for nearly 3,000 Libyan students in the United States and Canada. “New scholarship students nominated to study in the United States and Canada are therefore advised to postpone their travel plans.”
Another press release from the same day noted that students’ health insurance could be terminated on July 1, money for vouchers for airplane tickets to return to Libya wasn’t forthcoming and other benefits were also in jeopardy.
A few weeks later, the Bureau announced that Tripoli had sent the money for June but would likely not send July funds on time.
“The reality is that there are sometime slowdowns in the funding,” said Jennifer Humphries, the Bureau’s vice president of communications. “It seems to relate to a very arduous and complex approval process. The government of Libya is in somewhat of a transition.”
For Elrayes, a single male who said he reluctantly could ask his parents for money if necessary, the funding blips are an annoyance that force him to live more spartanly than he’d like. The situation is more serious for others, especially graduate students with families in the United States who receive around $2,700 a month.
“They are depending on their monthly stipend to pay their rent and bills and feed their family,” said Christy Eylar, an assistant director at Colorado State University’s Office of International Programs. “When that doesn’t come, of course it creates a lot of anxiety and uncertainty.”
While students deal with funding hiccups, host institutions complain that some of the Libyan students who enroll in their programs cause them headaches. U.S., U.K. and other universities outside Libya generally welcome Libyans as they do other foreign students because they pay full tuition and generally don’t drain university financial aid funds. University administrators said most Libyan students were qualified and the Libyan scholarships also pay for English courses for a year before the students matriculate.
But some Libyan students appear to be given scholarships with little vetting of their English and other skills, said Tevfik Sekerci, commercial director of Prime Education, a U.K.-based program at the University of York that trains workers for the oil, gas and aviation industries. Around 2,400 Libyan students study in the United Kingdom, the highest concentration outside of Libya.
“There are lots of problems. There is simply not a proper selection process for students,” said Sekerci. “They come from anywhere. The students are not identified on their skills or English-language level. They are chosen by whom they know or where they come from. They simply give the scholarships to anybody in any subject.”
He also noted that the Libyan government devotes few if any resources to monitoring students’ progress.
“How do you know if your students are doing well or not?” said Sekerci. “You only know when the course is finished but then you are too late. Some of them are very good. But some of them are simply not interested in studying.”
In Libya, the situation could become more chaotic as more ex-rebels seek educations abroad through the Warriors Affairs Commission. Led by Mustafa El Sagezly, a graduate of Utah State University and the London School of Economics who was a militia leader in the fight against Gaddafi, the commission was established at the end of the civil war to transition former revolutionaries into civic life.
The commission works with Libya’s Higher Education Ministry to place former fighters in foreign academic programs. A March 2014 decree offered 5,000 ex-fighters the opportunity to study abroad through the commission, Libyan officials said, part of an earlier promise by a former prime minister to send as many as 18,000 former fighters for study abroad. But even those officials admit the commission’s remit isn’t entirely related to education.
“Sending fighters to study abroad was a policy from Libyan government to make those fighters surrender their weapons and go abroad,” said Fathi Alkhari, deputy minister in the Ministry of Higher Education, at a June forum in London on Libyan universities.
Alkhari and other Libyan officials admitted the scholarship programs were experiencing difficulties. But they rejected claims that some scholarship recipients weren’t qualified and they defended expanding the programs through the Warrior’s Affairs Commission, saying Libya desperately needed to develop its intellectual capital.
A Ph.D. student in engineering at the University of Nottingham, Salem Ghozzi, echoed the officials. Pushing back against suggestions that Libyan students weren’t interested in studying, he said he was thankful to receive a government scholarship that was allowing him to conduct research he could never pursue at home.
“Studying in the U.K. is different because you get more practical, hand’s on training,” said Ghozzi. “You are encouraged to be more proactive with your studies.”