Libya struggling to meet massive demand for higher education

Libya has been marked by civil and political unrest in the years since the 2011 civil war that ended Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year rule. In the wake of landmark national elections last month, the country is “once again torn by conflict, between Islamists and their opponents, between opposing tribes and hundreds of lives have been lost,” reports The Independent.

The elections were held on 25 June 2014, accompanied by violence and protest but also by the hope that the newly constituted House of Representatives will at last bring a functioning democracy to Libya, along with greater stability and security. “The new parliament will replace the General National Congress, a body that became riddled with controversy, political deadlock and the ideological battles that have raged since the historic election nearly two years ago,” said a BBC report. “Though many Libyans have grown wary of the politics since then, they have not quite given up on democracy yet. As one prospective voter put it, ‘We will keep voting until we get the right people in.’”

The election results are still pending and the latest reports indicate that they will be announced next week on 20 July 2014.

Higher education in Libya

Against that backdrop, it can come as no surprise that Libya’s education system is also struggling to rebuild and to meet the demand of a youthful country where the median age is 24.5 years old. Among Libya’s highly urbanised population of 6.2 million people – the vast majority of which live in large cities in the North, Tripoli and Benghazi in particular – there are roughly half a million students enrolled in higher education.

There are 17 universities and more than a hundred technical and vocational institutions operating in Libya today. The majority of students, roughly 90% according to the British Council, are enrolled in public universities that are straining to meet the demand. “Today the system is dangerously overcrowded and lacks essential resources,” says Inside Higher Ed. “Its two largest institutions, the Universities of Tripoli and Benghazi, each have approximately 100,000 students, far more than they are designed for.”

Nevertheless, the higher education system in Libya is under a great deal of pressure to not only accommodate today’s student demand, but to also help pave the way to a brighter future for coming generations. Many countries face pressing concerns with respect to graduate employability and look to their higher education institutions as important drivers of innovation and economic and social development. Such concerns, however, are ever more pressing for a country such as Libya that is struggling to find its feet after an extended period of turmoil and uncertainty.

A recent report from the British Council adds, “Libya’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research is preparing a new law on higher education. It aims to restructure and consolidate Libya’s higher education provision, focusing on access, equity, diversity, and to build greater capacity for high-level research. A vital component will be to re-engage with the international community. By re-establishing links with other countries, Libya’s government hopes to develop its universities’ capacity, and to reinvigorate their critical role within the reconstruction of a secure, stable, and prosperous society.”

There have been increasing calls in recent years for greater international support to help strengthen and expand Libya’s higher education system, for example:

  • The British Council has helped to set up a network of 10 language training centres within Libyan universities.
  • The US and Libya have set up a joint task force to strengthen Libya’s higher education capacity.
  • Just last month, Canada hosted a delegation of Libyan officials for a week-long study tour exploring best practices in governance and leadership.

The very fluid situation in Libya is one of the biggest practical challenges in building more international linkages. Reporting from a recent education conference at the Libyan embassy in London, Al-Fanar notes, “British organisations said the difficulty in working with Libyan institutions was in trying to figure out whom they were supposed to be working with. The past few years have seen Libyan institutions and personnel shift at a swift rate.”

Government scholarship ups and downs

Another challenge is the country’s diminished capacity to provide foreign-language training to its students. “Study out of the country for undergraduates and those seeking master’s and doctoral degrees became more limited, since any such student needed a year of language training,” adds Al-Fanar. The British Council language centres noted above were a step toward strengthening this capacity. So too was a new scholarship programme announced in 2013 and intended to support as many as 31,000 students in year-long, English-language training programmes abroad (plus another 10,000 students and faculty).

Government scholarships have been available to Libyan students for decades and, while detailed statistics are hard to come by, estimates put the current number of government-funded students abroad as high as 20,000, with the UK, the US, Canada, Egypt, and Malaysia among some of the most popular destinations.

(The total number of Libyan students abroad is no doubt higher still when self-funded students are factored in but, again, limited data and reporting is a challenge in tracking mobility closely.)

Historically, the Libyan scholarship programmes have been focused on graduate students but in recent years the programme has been expanded to support undergraduate studies abroad as well.

The scholarship programmes are reportedly politically popular within Libya, and it is possible that the new government resulting from June’s elections will feel some pressure to expand scholarships as part of its efforts to improve access to education for young Libyans. A recent item from Al-Fanar quotes Mohamed Alsllabi, the head of the student scholarship programme at the Libyan education ministry:

“We are under pressure from other public sectors to issue another decree to send 55,000 students to study abroad.”

For the moment, instability and disruption at home is being reflected in the administration of scholarships for Libyan students abroad. There are regular reports of delayed or unpredictable transfers of funds to support travel, tuition, and monthly stipends for scholarship students. Al-Fanar reports on one such disruption affecting Libyan students in Canada and the US only last month:

“’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 9 June 2014 press release from the CBIE, a nonprofit organisation 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.’… 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 sometimes 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.’”

Such interruptions in programme administration naturally draw a lot of attention, as do Libya’s present-day security concerns and political challenges. Observers, however, are careful to point out that strengthening Libya’s education system for the future, and its international links, is a long-term proposition. It is an exercise in nation-building and one that requires vision, determination, and support from the international community. This is but one of the pressing challenges that will face Libya’s newly elected parliament starting this month, but also one that will bear heavily on the country’s fortunes and those of its people for the future.



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