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Public universities on the brink of closure

High institutions of learning in the country are on the brink of “disastrous closure” unless measures are taken soon to reverse this dangerous trajectory, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Juba Prof. John Apurot Akec has said.

In a statement to Juba Monitor, Prof. Akec said there was consensus among the global community that, no country can develop or compete in the global market without establishing universities that provide quality higher education and to conduct research that informs national policies and drives innovation.

Akec said reports estimate a return on investment of 21percent in Africa’s higher education sector, by far the highest in the world. Yet this potential may not necessarily extend with equal measure to all the countries in the continent. Those countries that have persistently under-invested in higher education and human capital formation may miss the boat of rapid economic progress that higher education promises, according to Prof. Akec.

“South Sudan is among the countries that are most likely to miss out, given a trajectory of underfunding of its higher education sector since the nation gained its independence in 2011,” he said.

“The country has five functioning public universities, Juba, Bahr el-Ghazal, Upper Nile, Rumbek and Dr John Garang. Four proposed universities are Northern Bahr El-Ghazal, Torit, Liech and Yambio. The country’s five public universities host about 20,000 students, half of whom are studying at the University of Juba,” Prof. Akec added.

However, he said these public universities are seriously underfunded and lack the basic infrastructure, such as quality lecture halls, well-stocked libraries, equipped laboratories, internet connectivity and office space for teaching staff.

The Vice-Chancellor said always when allocating its annual budget, the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning commits itself only to the payment of salaries of staff and hardly earmark any funds for operation, infrastructure costs or lab equipment.

He further said this funding situation had not changed since independence. To meet their operating costs, public universities are permitted to charge a symbolic amount in tuition fees. But these fees have remained fixed since 2011 while inflation had risen dramatically, with SSP six exchanged for one dollar in March 2015 compared to SSP145 in May 2017. This has significantly eroded the purchasing power of tuition fees.
According to Prof. Akec, high inflation is a result of combination of factors, including the war, which had raised government expenditure on security; a reduction in oil revenues accruing to the national government due to low production output, a drop in oil prices on the global market; and the depreciation of the country’s currency against the dollar in the exchange market since December 2015.

“To fully appreciate the challenges faced by South Sudan’s universities, take the example of the University of Juba, the main national university. The impact of inflation on the falling purchasing power of tuition fees collected from students is catastrophic,” he said.

“In 2014 the University of Juba’s monthly operational cost was between SSP350, 000 and SSP450, 000 a month. At that time, the university was spending about SSP80, 000 a month on fuel; and SSP120, 000 per semester to print out examination answer sheets. A bag of cement for construction projects sold for about SSP250,” The Vice-Chancellor said.

He reiterated that since July 2015 to December the same year, operating costs in the University raised to SSP1.4 million a month saying in January 2016, operating costs had exceeded SSP4 million per month. The monthly expenditure on fuel for generators alone went up to SSP420, 000 per month. Printing of examination script sheets went up to SSP600, 000 in 2016 per semester.

Prof. Akec said due to the rising operating costs, the administration of the University of Juba decided to triple tuition fees in October 2016 in order to somehow offset the rising prices. The average tuition fees (fees differ from one college to another) were SSP9, 000 (or US$100 based on the October 2016 exchange rate). The goal was to raise SSP80 million (or US$1.1 million) for operational and minor infrastructural developments.

“However, the fee increase was met by an outcry from students and the public. As a result, it was annulled by the President of the Republic in an address in Parliament on 14 December 2016. The current reduced fees which averaged around SSP2, 000 per year per student are predicted to raise about SSP30 million, leaving a deficit of SSP90 million, which the administration of the University of Juba needs to effectively operate,” he said.

Prof. Akec revealed that the higher education institutions face closure saying as of May 2017, the exchange rate of US dollars to South Sudan pounds stood at US$1 to around SSP140. That doubled the 2016 costs and further eroded the market value of the already meager amount of money collected from tuition fees.

“Not only that, but the market value of staff salaries has been tremendously diminished, with a full professor now earning the equivalent of less than US$200 per month and the majority earning less than US$100, down from US$3,000 in 2015,” he said.

The Vice-Chancellor stressed that recently, the administration of the University of Juba noted an increasing number of teaching staff taking leave without pay to work in the NGOs sector where pay is higher. Others are crossing the border for greener pastures abroad.

“What is seen to be a bleak future for the University of Juba is also true for all the public universities. Many will soon close down. The consequences will be a delayed economic recovery and a retarded economic growth in the coming decades, unless measures are taken soon to reverse this dangerous trajectory of South Sudan’s higher education sector,” Prof. Akec said.
By Opio Jackson

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