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Libya’s Foreign Scholarship Program Is Crumbling

The Libyan government scholarships that have sent tens of thousands of students to foreign universities are drying up, according to Libyan officials.

Libyan government scholarship payments to universities and professional training courses around the world have always been spotty. Last month, the Libyan government released funding for the 2014-2015 academic year — ending months of fretting by students struggling to make ends meet and pay tuition to receive credit for their studies.

But now officials are saying they aren’t sure if they can continue paying for students enrolled in courses, and they doubt new students will be able to take advantage of the program.

“The fund has stopped for a while,” said Ahmed Abannona, who oversees scholarships at Libya’s Warriors Affairs Commission, an agency established to help fighters reintegrate into civilian life after the First Libyan Civil War ended in 2011. “We do not know if there is enough money to keep paying for them. But surely no new students will be funded due to austerity policies.”

Ali Abu Salah, who is studying Islamic banking at Tun Hussein Onn University of Malaysia, said the past year had been difficult. He routinely waited in vain for his scholarship payments to arrive each month. In June, three months’ worth of payments finally came.

“We know how much our country is suffering from bad security and the economic situation, but we do not have any other funding,” he said. “Some students have been kicked out their homes as they could not pay the rental fees. Others face problems in medical treatment as the insurance has stopped too.”

Salah was happy to receive the back payments from the Libyan government. But he didn’t know whether he would have funding for the fall. “It’s not clear if the problem has been solved completely or if we will face a shortage again,” he said.

Abannona said late payments forced some students to abandon their studies. They had little recourse if they couldn’t find other sources of funding, he said. “We know that many students have suffered,” he said. “Unfortunately we can’t do anything for them.”

He blamed “political conflict” for the lack of funds.

Since the second Libyan Civil War began in 2014, oil output in the North African country has plunged and the country’s governance has become chaotic. The remnants of a democratically elected government had to leave the capital, and at least four armed factions are vying for control of the country. Oil fields, export terminals and revenues from existing sales have become the prizes for the many warring groups, including the Islamic State.

The scholarships, run by the Warriors Affairs Commission and the Libyan Ministry of Higher Education, sent around 5,700 students abroad annually to study in foreign universities and bring their expertise back to the country after graduation. Around 20,000 students are now studying around the world on the scholarships.

But signs of an imminent shutdown are appearing.

In late May, the Canadian Bureau for International Education, which manages the scholarships in North America, announced that it would no longer oversee the program as of October. In an e-mail, a bureau spokeswoman, Jennifer Humphries, said she didn’t know who would take the organization’s place.

“Program funding has been delayed several times in the past year, and the program currently lacks funds to cover students’ essential benefits, including living allowances, health insurance and tuition fees,” the bureau said in a statement.

The announcement came after funding for health insurance for students in American universities was terminated in March and funding for coverage in Canada petered out in early May, said Humphries.

Universities have been struggling to help students remain enrolled in school, obtain insurance and feed their families. Many of the scholarship recipients are working toward master’s degrees and Ph.D.’s and have brought their spouses and children abroad.

“These are really first-class students,” said John Sunnygard, executive director of the Office of International Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver, which has 26 Libyan scholarship students. “It’s very painful to see the impact that events far away have on students and their families. This is the next generation of Libya. They are the ones who will rebuild Libya. We take that responsibility very seriously.”

Whoever replaces the Canadian Bureau for International Education has big shoes to fill, Sunnygard added. Bureau staffers have been working closely with higher-education institutions throughout North America, he said, providing vital stability for schools and students while the Libyan government behaves unpredictably.

“I am concerned who is going to pick it up,” he said. “Are they going to have the same motivation to support students and institutions?”

Many students in North America have become dependent on the kindness of local churches, community groups and landlords who let them pay their rent in a lump sum when their stipends come through, said Cheryl Hansen, director of International Programs-Global Services at Washington State University, where 51 Libyans study on scholarships. In North America, living stipends have been intermittently transferred to student accounts while tuition payments have been on hold.

“One student that has only been in the U.S. for maybe six months or so didn’t really know that he should scrimp and save,” said Hansen. “He learned the hard way and from the other Libyans who have been here for a number years that you have to save for the lean times because never know when they’ll happen.”

The funding problems have also caused financial headaches for universities. Washington State’s Office of International Programs pays around $500,000 for international students’ dorm fees and recoups the money from the Libyan government, said Hansen. The office is on the hook for that money if the government doesn’t come through.

Professors have been calling Hansen with concerns about Libyan students leaving without finishing their work.

“If the student were to pull out, how would it impact a department?” asked Hansen. “We’ve had some calls from departments concerned about students who are involved with grants and research projects.”

Michigan State University electrical engineering student Ali Elrayes, 22, is lucky. He only needs to earn a few more credits to graduate in the next academic year. This summer, he’s working as a paid intern at a local engineering firm, so he expects to have sufficient cash to pay for the necessary courses and graduate with a bachelor’s degree.

Elrayes hoped current students who have years to go in their studies would receive sufficient funding to finish. He feels sorry for other Libyans who wouldn’t be able to study abroad next year. But he wasn’t surprised that the scholarship program was breaking down. It’s another Libyan institution that is crumbling amid the civil war, he said.

“The problem is not just with the program,” he said. “The problem is, who is running the country? You can’t figure out who is running the county. The problem with the program is the same problem with Libya. As long as there are practically two governments fighting for control, and there is no money flowing, the economy has stalled and the government can’t pay.”

* Rasha Faek and Reda Fhelboom also contributed reporting to this story.


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