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Arab Students at Sudanese Universities Face an Uncertain Future

Arab students from outside Sudan who were studying at the countries’ universities have essentially become hostages to its political unrest now that Sudanese universities are closed indefinitely.

Many Arab students go to Sudan because of relatively low costs and lower admissions standards than they would face in their home countries. But that is also making it difficult for many of them to transition back to universities at home.

The number of Arab students in Sudanese universities is at least 15,000, according to the Non-Sudanese Student Welfare Organization, an official nongovernmental organization. The students are distributed among 38 public universities and more than 100 private educational institutions across Sudan.

After four years of studying dentistry at Al-Yarmouk Private University in Khartoum, and just a year before her graduation, Duaa Mahmoud was forced to leave her university and return to Egypt, after halting her studies in December. “My future is being lost before my eyes and nobody cares or is doing something to help me,” she said.

Mahmoud’s return to Sudan does not seem imminent, given the continuing political turmoil there, and her attempts to resume her studies in a similar institution in her country seem impossible. Her grade on her high school exit exams does not qualify her to study dentistry in Egypt.

“My future is being lost before my eyes and nobody cares or is doing something to help me. … I have lost a full academic year in Sudan.”

-Duaa Mahmoud  
An Egyptian who was studying dentistry at Al-Yarmouk Private University in Khartoum

“I have lost a full academic year in Sudan and I am very afraid of losing my previous academic years and my academic and professional future if I cannot resume my studies in the specialty I loved and spent four years in,” she said. (If she passed her Sudanese exams she would be able to practice dentistry in Egypt.)

The largest number of foreign students in Sudan—7,000—comes from Somalia. Two thousand students are from Yemen, and 1,200 students are from Egypt. All these students have halted their studies now after a government decision to shut down the universities as a result of public protests against poor economic conditions and high living costs. Those protests led to the April 11 overthrow of the Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and the transfer of power to a transitional military council. (See a related article, “Sudan Shutters All Its Universities”).

Classrooms Remain Closed

Although the military council has said it wants to reopen universities, that hasn’t happened yet. Protesters are pressuring the military junta to hand over power to civilians; something rejected by the council. Thousands of protestors have taken to the streets in recent days and many have been injured in clashes with security forces.

“Opening the universities at this time would be an irresponsible act,” said Mohammed Yousef Ahmed, an economics professor at the University of Khartoum and the representative of the university professors’ group within the Sudanese Professionals Association, which has driven much of the protest. “University students are part of the revolutionary force, and if study is resumed this might double the likelihood of their clashing with the security forces,” he said.

While universities seem unlikely to reopen for now, Arab students returning to their home countries to resume their studies face obstacles.

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In Egypt, the Ministry of Higher Education will not allow universities to admit students coming back from Sudan because of differences in admission standards and educational systems. Many of the Egyptian students enrolled in Sudanese universities had high-school exam scores that were too low to allow them to join even private universities in Egypt.

“We met the Minister of Higher Education, who assured us that our admission at Egypt’s universities may take place if our grades in high school exit exams were sufficient to qualify us to be accepted according to the admission requirements of these colleges today, provided that we resume our study from the first year,” said Mahmoud.“That means our previous study will not be recognized. This is so frustrating.”

Adel Abdul Ghaffar, the media spokesman for Egypt’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, emphasized the ministry’s eagerness to help Egyptian students at Sudanese universities, in coordination with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “We support students and their parents in any action that will ensure their continuing their education in order to preserve the future of their sons,” he said. (Many Egyptian families would not generally send their daughters abroad for study.)

Jordanian students who have studied in Sudan protesting for a chance to study in their home country (Photo: Youtube).

Arab students from other countries with greater internal conflict than Egypt—including, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Palestine—face an even harsher reality if they return. But it’s not safe for them to stay in Sudan.

“I have lost three years of my life and I do not know what tomorrow holds for me,” said Saleh Hamed, a third-year engineering student from Gaza who is now at the International University of Africa, in Sudan.

Hamed says he has been living in harsh conditions during the protests. “We are having a hard time getting money transfers,” he said. “There was the sound of gunfire and the smell of gas bombs everywhere. Going out to buy food was dangerous. We spent days just eating bread and drinking water.”

Hamed calleed on the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Higher Education to find a solution for the future of Palestinian students, ensuring their safe return and enabling them to resume their studies in the same academic fields. But the Palestinian policy is the same as in Egypt, according to an official statement issued by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. The statement said that the admission of students returning from Sudan would be “within the scope of the Ministry’s rules and regulations and university policies,” which implies that many of them cannot resume their studies, especially in the same disciplines.

In Jordan, a Possible Solution

Some experts say that not allowing students returning from Sudan to complete their studies in their country is logical. The university admission system in the majority of Arab countries is based chiefly on secondary school exit exam scores. Because the majority of the students went to Sudan because of their low grades and low university admission requirements, it is not fair to admit them today in disciplines they were not initially qualified for, some academics say.

“It is unfair to equate students at Egyptian universities who got high grades in high school exams with students with lower grades,” said Mohammed Kamal, an assistant professor of education at Kafrelsheikh University. “We recognize the difficulties our students face in Sudan, but the solution should not be at the expense of students in Egyptian universities.”

Kamal said the majority of students who are enrolled in Sudanese universities because of the low admission requirements are in medical and engineering colleges. For such students, the cost of living is $300 a month or less, he said.

But students believe that applying old admission rules to them today is unfair, especially if they have performed well and are about to graduate.

“This is injustice,” said Haitham Mehran, a third-year dentistry student at Neelain University. “The courses and textbooks are almost 90 percent the same in Egypt and Sudan, according to the Supreme Council of Universities.”

Although the number of Jordanian students studying in Sudan was only about 445 students, the Higher Education Council in Jordan is trying to help them complete their education.  Jordanian students can be admitted to Jordanian colleges similar to the Sudanese ones that they were studying in on the condition that they pass an exam determining their level of education. Students will not be admitted to scientific colleges such as medicine and dentistry unless their grades on the secondary school exit exams were 80 percent or higher.

Mahmoud and Mehran hope that the Egyptian ministry will follow the example of its Jordanian counterpart and facilitate their admission to local universities without having to start from scratch. Hamed, from Gaza, is more pessimistic, especially given the difficulty of returning to his besieged country. “Thinking about future does not seem feasible,” he said. “The present as well as the future is not in our hands.”


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