The Splintering of Somalia Has Crippled Education
Somali universities are beginning to recover from two decades of civil war but a lack of government oversight, an ongoing brain drain and security concerns continue to imperil higher education in the country.
And education analysts don’t expect the situation to change anytime soon.
“Somalia is a prime example of a nation that has effectively lost its entire educational footing as it is reeling from continuous and pervasive war that decimated its central governing capacities,” said Mohamed Mahmoud, a graduate student in public administration at Evergreen State College in Washington state and a co-founder of the East African Global Education Initiative.
“While local collectives and families have started coming together to create primary learning support for children in their towns and villages, the government hasn’t yet made higher education or student readiness a priority,” Mahmoud added.
The state of higher education mirrors the troubles Somalia has endured since 1991, when the collapse of its military government unleashed a bloody civil war, analysts say. Afterward, in 2006, the country was divided into three zones—autonomous Puntland in the northeast, autonomous Somaliland in the northwest and the Somali government-controlled territory in the south. Critics say that arrangement has prevent the central government from recovering its ability to govern.
Adding to this, since the end of the civil war, an al Qaeda-linked Muslim extremist group, al Shabaab, has risen up to challenge the new order. In early April, the group attacked Garissa University College in eastern Kenya, killing almost 150 students and staff, and injuring around 80 others. On April 14, the group attacked the Ministry of Education in Mogadishu, killing more than a dozen people.
The situation in the country has led to the Fund for Peace’s Fragile State Index to list Somalia as the second-most fragile country in the world, after South Sudan. Almost half of all Somalis live below the poverty line, and less than 42 percent of children enroll in primary school, one of the lowest student enrollment rates in the world, according to a 2015 study by the University College of London’s Institute of Education. Higher education is getting lost in the long list of the country’s priorities, analysts say.
“Due to the war and continuous political instability, particularly in south-central Somalia, the state of higher education in Somalia remains weak,” said Farhan Hassan, executive director of the U.K.-based Somali Heritage Academic Network. “No national policy or system of formal higher education exists today.”
Because of a lack of a national higher education framework or infrastructure, over the past decades, other actors have moved in and largely taken over the role of educating students who have passed through secondary school and are seeking more advanced study, Hassan says. These include civil society organizations, members of the Somali diaspora as well as private individuals and international aid organizations.
That is how students in Puntland are able to study, say local education officials.
“There has not been strong government administration and support for almost a quarter century,” said Puntland State University Vice Chancellor Mahamud Hamid Mohamed. “The higher education institutions are mostly supported by the elites, civil society and to some extent international agencies.”
At the same time, private universities have moved to fill the gap left by public universities over the years, adding to the chaos.
“Higher education institutions have proliferated in Somalia during two decades of civil war,” said a 2013 Royal African Society report. “More than 50,000 students are attending some 50 universities across the country.”
The problem is, these institutions are usually exclusively the refuge of the upper classes. Students pay $9,000 in tuition to obtain a medical degree at Somali International University in addition to other expenses, like textbooks, for example. That’s a big number compared to the average earnings of a Somali, which are $600 annually, according to the World Bank.
The lack of government oversight has led higher education in Somalia to become a commodity that is bought and sold, not a service to expand the minds of the country’s future leaders, say critics.
“In Somalia, anyone with money can construct a building and then offer higher education without proper scrutiny or oversight,” said Hassan. “As the funding responsibility and authority are being shifted to parents, individuals, private enterprise and international foreign aid, the problem is that there is no mechanism for accountability whatsoever.”
Analysts say the country has no national accreditation process and the new institutions cropping up don’t have the resources to apply for international accreditation. That leaves students in the lurch.
Somalia is realizing the situation cannot stand as it is, Mohamud said. To do so, various actors are realizing it is crucial to collaborate. For example, the government and local community groups now jointly operate Puntland State University, Amoud University in Puntland and University of Hargeisa in Somaliland.
In 2006, nine Somali universities formed SomaliREN, or the Somali Research & Education Network, to promote local schools as well as university-level research. Experts said it might be the country’s best shot at improving higher education, and serve as a model.
“For recovering nations like Somalia, this is a great opportunity,” said Mohamud. “It can focus on degrees such as agriculture, veterinarian and human medicine, civil engineering, law and public administration, all the needs that that fit with the educational efforts towns and villages prioritize.”
But there are steep hurdles. Somali schools and universities lack sufficient classroom space, technology—including Internet access—professors, library resources, textbooks and lab space and other research facilities.
Currently, the three-way split up of the country is hindering progress, says Hassan, because leaders in the three zones don’t want to cede power to each other. Hassan hoped international agencies might bring leaders of the three zones to the table to hammer out an arrangement that bypasses politics and improves education.
Also, the country needs to have a broad conversation among stakeholders and international groups like UNESCO to hammer out a plan to reform Somali universities and keep talented students in the country, said Hassan. “Although there is no a magic key or silver bullets for tackling this issue,” he said, “it is important to address funding arrangements and ask some key questions such as, ‘What are the aims, objectives, standards, goals and ideologies of higher education in Somalia?”
Because without a new education regime in Somalia, experts said, few talented Somalis stay in the country if they have a chance to leave. That process accelerated in the 1990s when the civil war was raging and international aid started pouring into the country.
Also, the situation is hindering development, and promoting continued instability.
“The education system in Somaliland was sub-standard even before the fall of the military government that ruled the country,” said Saeed Sheikh Mohamed, president of the Somaliland University of Technology. “A prolonged civil war has made social and economic recovery painfully slow. The absence of proper education is contributing to the vicious cycle of unemployment and poverty.”
Still, despite the challenges, some observers are optimistic.
Mohamed, Puntland State University vice chancellor, noted progress toward the formation and strengthening of higher education commissions in Puntland and Somaliland. “Somali is in a difficult place,” Mohamed said. “At least two generations of people—and the education system—have been hurt. But rebuilding from the heart of its towns and villages should allow it to diversify and embed new higher education priorities into its future.”