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Floods, Locusts, and Covid-19: Somali Students and Universities Struggle

/ 31 Aug 2020

Floods, Locusts, and Covid-19: Somali Students and Universities Struggle

Mohammed Sa’eed, a second-year student at Mogadishu Private University’s College of Engineering, uses his motorcycle to commute for two hours a day, in temperatures of up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, to go to a friend’s house to use the Internet and Zoom in order to attend his lectures.

After his university shut its doors in March due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, Sa’eed returned to his hometown of Lego, 60 miles northwest of Mogadishu, where there is no Wi-Fi service and 3G and 4G telecommunication networks are not available.

“The problem is not limited to accessing the Internet,” said Sa’eed. “Sometimes the power is cut off, which makes it very difficult to keep studying.”

The closure of more than 42 universities in Somalia since March 19, as a precaution to stop the spread of Covid-19, caused some universities to switch to teaching online, as is the case in most Arab countries. However, students in the country, where more than 70 percent of the population lives under poverty line, according to World Bank data, face great technical and living difficulties that impede the continuation of their education. (See a related article, “The Shift to Online Education in the Arab World Is Intensifying Inequality.”)

Before Covid-19, there were more than five million Somalis in need of humanitarian aid, among them 2.6 million displaced people who are particularly vulnerable. In addition, about a million people are affected by floods, and the country is facing its “worst desert locust infestation in nearly 25 years,” according to James Swan, the top United Nations official in Somalia.

“The problem is not limited to accessing the Internet. Sometimes the power is cut off, which makes it very difficult to keep studying.”

Mohammed Sa’eed   A second-year student at Mogadishu Private University’s College of Engineering

Educationally, Somalia has one of the world’s lowest gross enrollment rates. More than 60 percent of school-age children are not currently enrolled in school, and only 26 percent of them are enrolled in secondary education, according to the Arab Development Portal.

Today, many people believe that the shift to online teaching has increased the education difficulties in the country and is exacerbating the social gap among its residents.

“I only have my mobile phone and it does not help me much in studying my lessons, as I can barely attend lectures when I am in the vicinity of a Wi-Fi network,” said Hana Ahmed, a second-year student in the Department of Public Health at the private Zamzam University for Science and Technology, in Mogadishu.

Ahmed pointed out that she cannot afford to purchase a personal computer. “I feel concerned. … I am afraid that I will not be able to keep my high marks the way I used to before,” she added. “Studying in classrooms is much better.”

Technical Challenges

Internet use is on the rise in Somalia. In January, the number of Internet users in the country hit 1.63 million, an increase of 7.5 percent, which means about 113,000 users, since 2019. Still, the Internet penetration rate in Somalia does not exceed 10 percent, according to the digital usage tracking company DataReportal.

And while a monthly plan with one gigabyte of data costs less than $1, that amount of data could easily be consumed in less than 24 hours of Internet use, and the cost is still prohibitive for the largest proportion of students in a country whose average per capita income does not exceed $600 per year.

Hundreds of students also lack basic supplies to ensure that they stay in touch with their professors remotely, such as smartphones, laptop computers and the ability to connect to the Internet, according to a report on the impact of Covid-19 on higher education in Somalia issued by the Somali Public Agenda, a local research institution interested in public affairs.

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Contributing to the problem, many universities do not have a suitable technical infrastructure for such a digital transformation. Although there are some free digital platforms available, such as Zoom, which is very popular in Somalia, the free use is available for 40 minutes only, which requires restarting the classrooms after this period.

Subscription to the service is about $15, but most universities avoid subscribing because of the financial challenges they face. Many students stopped paying tuition after university hours were suspended.

Financial difficulties prompted some university departments to reduce the salaries of professors by about 30 percent and lay off some employees.

“Universities depend on one financial source, which is student tuition fees,” said Abdullahi Bihi Hussein, chief executive of the Somali Research and Education Network. “The situation today is dangerous and threatens to shut down universities.”

Administrators at three universities contacted by Al-Fanar Media declined to comment on their financial situation.

“Online education represents a new experience and adventure for Somali universities that were not prepared for.”

Farhan Isak Yusuf   Head of the political science department at the University of Mogadishu

“Until now, we cannot say that the quality of educational services provided to students has been affected by the financial crisis,” said Hussein. “However, finding solutions is very necessary today.”

The sudden shift to online education has increased the burden on university administrations and professors. Universities were unprepared for this transformation, lacking ready-made electronic courses, and few professors had previous skills regarding online education methods, the use of digital technology, and dealing with computers.

“In the past, universities relied on traditional classes only to offer their programs,” said Farhan Isak Yusuf, head of the political science department at the University of Mogadishu. “Online education represents a new experience and adventure for Somali universities that were not prepared for.” 

Attempts to Adapt 

Yusuf believes that science, engineering and medicine majors are those most affected by the shift to online education. Practical lessons in laboratories, which constituted about 50 percent of science students’ curricula, stopped, and practical and field training for students of medicine and engineering stopped.

“The epidemic has hindered the completion of required curricula, and this has affected the morale of many professors and students who have lost their passion for study,” he said.

Some professors are trying to adapt to the new situation by putting handwritten explanations and research papers on YouTube to illustrate lessons. However, that does not seem sufficient.

“Teaching applied science online is very difficult,” said Hussein Mohammed Hassan, a lecturer who teaches applied physics in the Faculty of Education at the University of Mogadishu. “However, we try as much as possible to help our struggling students.”

According to Hassan, professors and students faced several difficulties, such as a reluctance to use the Internet in teaching, which required time to do, the lack of Internet access as some families were unable to afford it, and the difficulty of convincing the students’ parents to have them learn remotely.

“The professor should use whatever method is available to bring his students closer to understanding,” he said. “We used various programs and recorded the curricula to facilitate access for students who are unable to access it.”

Hussein, the Somali Research and Education Network executive, believes that solving the crisis needs unconventional solutions to search for alternative or additional financial resources for universities besides tuition fees, such as searching for research partnerships with African universities or providing cooperation programs with international institutions that support higher education in poor countries.

Until appropriate solutions are implemented, Sa’eed, the University of Mogadishu student who commutes to obtain Internet access, is considering suspending his studies, even if temporarily.

“If the situation continues like this at the start of the new academic year, I will postpone my studies,” he said. “I am unable to continue this way.”




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