South Sudan should develop and enact a law first for universities

By: Deng Riek Khoryoam

October 21, 2011 (SSNA) — For over a week now, my schedule has been so tight up that I couldn’t find some minutes or even an hour to put together my thoughts and present my opinion on the foregoing debate about the closing down of most of the private universities in Juba or South Sudan, for that matter. I’ve chosen the word “most” at ease because they said there are only two or three private universities in Juba or South Sudan who will not be shut down because they meet the standard requirements as supposedly set by the government – the regulating body for any institution of higher learning. And in this particular case; that would be the ministry of higher education, science, research and technology. I hope you don’t mind if I add my view and opinion to those who have already spoken about it!

The debate about whether or not to shut down most of the private universities has been raging for months now soon after the independence of this country 3 months ago. The debate has been relentless and has thus caught some, like the minister of higher education, in an unceasing war of words with the private universities. The reason given for the closing down of these private universities is that they do not meet the standard requirements to become fully-pledged universities offering high quality education to the needy populations of the newly born nation. That could be true to a larger extent, but then something essential needs to be put into consideration before taking such emotional, illegal and or legal action. It’s a known fact that the republic of South Sudan is a nascent state that is just 3 months old now.

I think there is no dispute on the fact that some or most of these private and equally, public institutions of higher learning are operating or have been operating in South Sudan without meeting certain legal requirements or provisos that make them recognizable by law. It’s both the public and the private universities alike, not the later alone. But I think it would be disastrous if we just act in haste, either in an emotional manner or in a way that could be deemed to be ultra-vires, if we just shut them down without the law. No one in his or her right mind would also question the constitutional or legal powers of the ministry concerned- that is the ministry of higher education, science, research and technology as to why it did or does that since it’s its prerogative. I will only concern myself here with the legal aspects of this decision to close down the private universities based on the little knowledge that I have, and without claiming any knowledge of jurisprudence.

The Honourable minister of higher education, scientific research and technology in the republic of South Sudan, Dr. Peter Adwok Nyaba has been issuing stern warnings to the private universities intermittently. The minister charged that these private universities do not meet any legal requirements as supposedly set by the government of the day, and therefore should or must be closed down till they meet these conditions. The minister went on to say that most of these private universities were never given licenses to operate by the then government of Southern Sudan (GOSS) but were just issued with ‘No objection letters’, “so that they could process their establishments by fully complying and implementing the conditions set”, the minister claimed! He also continued to say that these private universities operate from their scattered lecture halls in the capital without licenses, presenting risk of non-recognition of certificates acquired from them”. The real question is why issue a ‘no objection letter’ in the first place and you say later that these were not licenses? It means something must be wrong somewhere in the system.

But the fundamental and rhetorical question that begs an honest answer from the honourable minister or anybody else is: Is there any law which has been passed by parliament that regulates all the universities regardless of whether it’s public or private? The answer is a resounding NO! There is no law or act for universities in the republic of South Sudan. If it has been there, then perhaps it only existed in Khartoum where he was a minister in the same docket that he now assumes in the new republic. How do you know that this or that institution of higher learning has not met the conditions set by the government without the law? It doesn’t make any sense at all. I think there is a need to stick to the rule of law and to develop a strong desire or sense of constitutionalism, if we are to act and do things within the parameters of the constitution and its limits.

The honourable minister should instead develop a law (if not already developed) or what is known everywhere as “universities’ act” and send it to parliament for further deliberation and enactment. It then becomes a law after the president accents to it. He should then lobby and urge the parliament to speed up the process so that it enables him carry out his constitutional duty of delivering services in the ministry of higher education and within the context of the 100 days as announced by H.E. the president of the republic. I bet if there is any law the minister could cite, and which talks about the universities or institutions of higher learning, it’s only the transitional constitution of our beautiful republic, the republic of South Sudan – no nothing else! Khartoum has a universities act but unless the honourable minister wants to import it into South Sudan; which I also think is uncalled for here in South Sudan, given the fact that the education system in Khartoum is more inclined to Islamism or Islamic system of education than a secular system of education.

The point here is that you cannot just wake up from your bed and assert that these universities do not meet the conditions and must be closed down, when there is no law that regulates such institutions of higher learning; it’s illegal, it’s also unprocedurall, to say the least! Notwithstanding the importance of private universities in any nation like ours, hence, this cannot be over-emphasized! The private universities and colleges exist everywhere in any country; so do the public universities, but they are all regulated by law. It’s the prime responsibility of the line ministry to ensure that there is a law that exists and that is a basis for all that concerns the institutions of higher learning. Most of the prestigious institutions of higher learning in the world today are private universities. Harvard University is a private university that is known for producing super leaders, including the tough guy called Barrack Obama, the president of USA.

We can also pick a leaf from our neighbours in Africa as well, if the US is far beyond stretch. Kenya, for instance, has only 7 public universities and multitudes are private universities and colleges. Uganda has 8 public universities and a number of private ones. If you compare what a public university offers with what the private does, there is no difference in terms of quality education they offer. The difference here is that public universities do get the funding and support from the government directly whereas private universities don’t get funding directly from the government but through projects and others! But in terms of quality of teaching, there is no any single difference; in fact some private institutions are working tirelessly in order to out-compete the public institutions of the higher learning. This kind of positive competitiveness is the one and only one that should be encouraged in order to excel in academia as we strive to bridge the huge gap of illiteracy created by years of civil strife.

In South Sudan in particular, we should work hard and harder in order to address the high illiteracy rates by encouraging the existence of private institutions of higher learning instead of shutting them down. If you look at what the private university offers in contrast to what the public university offers, most of these private institutions of higher learning are far better than the so-called ‘public universities’, which are funded for doing nothing except to pocket the public kitty in the name of running these universities. There is no quality teaching at public universities; there is only quantity, and the later is devalued at the stock exchange of the today’s academic world. This is not to suggest that the private universities and other institutions of higher learning should not comply and adhere to the set conditions. Get it right from me; all I am saying is that let the ministry concerned come up with the law first before thinking of shutting them down. This is no longer a jungle state, we are a republic now, remember! Thus, one would expect the highly learned minister of higher education in the republic of South Sudan to understand that there is always a ‘universities’ act’ in any country, just like there is a media act and so forth.

In recap, the minister should needs to first pull up his socks and get to work on the universities’ act before he could talk of closing private universities down. Do you know even some of the so-called ‘public universities’ could be closed down for not meeting some of the requirements as well, if there is fairness. Juba University, for example, could risk being closed down if we were/are not biased, because it does not implement or maintain a clean and safe environment that is enabling and conducive enough for learning. The latrines are a mess and the surrounding environment is awful and undesirable! It’s a health concern for the general public as well as the learning students, whose health is put at risk by this man-made phenomenon or environ. The public health authorities here are not up to their task because they would have declared it as ‘health hazardous’ for students to be in the campus at its current state. I think if the minister is not oblivious of the legality or illegality of his action (closing down of private universities) and the war of words, then, he is up to something else, I guess! I would think of the later for obvious reasons.

I am not a student of any private university here in South Sudan. Make no mistake about concluding that way! This is just my plight for these private universities and the little understanding of the legal aspects of this debate. I think there is no dispute on the fact that South Sudan is in dire need of quality education now than ever before in order to address this high illiteracy challenge, regardless of whether it’s offered by private or public university. We need enlightened citizens who know their rights and responsibilities as clearly stipulated in our constitution. We cannot do that unless we have universities whose first, second and third objectives is to serve the nation by producing good leaders of today and tomorrow. I appeal to the honourable minister to consider this other side of the coin and to act within the law.

The author lives in South Sudan, he can be reached for comments at [email protected]

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