Somaliland’s higher education capacity may have been growing, but a lack of financial and human resources and the continued lack of international recognition of its country’s self-declared independent status continue to impede progress, say local education leaders.
Ahmed Muse, director-general at the ministry of higher education of the Republic of Somaliland, said infrastructure weaknesses and a shortage of qualified teaching and non-teaching staff are to blame.
The 1991 civil war with Somalia under former president Siyad Barre, which led to Somaliland declaring independence in the northern portion of the country that had been a UK colony until 1960 (the rest had been previously controlled by Italy), destroyed all tertiary education facilities in the self-declared country. Somaliland’s first university – Amoud University in Borama – was subsequently set up in 1998, followed by the main public University of Hargeisa in Somaliland’s capital, which opened in 2000 in the same city, alongside privately owned Gollis University.
Starting from zero
“Higher education is a relatively new concept in the country and it was started from zero and thus it has to compete for national resources with other key programmes that are being rolled out by the government,” Muse said.
“The war destroyed all the institutions including the education sector where we belong and we have been rebuilding ourselves,” he added.
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Since Barre’s fall in 1991, Somaliland has enjoyed a relatively peaceful existence compared with much of the remainder of internationally-recognized Somalia. It has had a functioning government whose writ has extended to much of the territory it claims, unlike the government in Mogadishu, which has only recently been extending its authority across Somalia.
Somaliland, which claims independence, is not recognized either by Somalia or any other sovereign state.
Dr. Saeed Ibrahim, founder of Gollis University, noted: “All the universities in Somaliland have been built from scratch. After the war, we had no classes nor teachers as most of the human resources either fled the country or were killed and that shortage of academic staff that we are seeing today can also be attributed to that history,” he told University World News.
Progress … with challenges
“What you see today is work in progress but of course with many challenges. We still depend on our neighbors for lecturers and professors to steer our wheel of knowledge creation,” he added.
“We started off offering theory and short courses that focused on training police and other government officials to kick-start national reconstruction,” he said.
Today, there are today 29 higher education institutions recognized by Somaliland’s higher education ministry, according to Muse, serving an estimated population of 3.5 million. Of these institutions, eight are public universities that rely on government subsidies. The other 21 have been founded by charitable organizations or private entities and are self-financing through student fees. “In 2019, approximately 32,000 students enrolled in our universities,” said Muse.
Generally, the Somaliland education system is organized in four levels, starting with pre-primary (not fully integrated into formal education); primary or alternative; secondary or vocational; and higher education.
Even though there has been a steady development of higher education, the continuing contention over statehood challenges both students and general investment, according to Abdi Gaas, the president of Gollis University.
“Other countries refuse to engage us for academic partnerships; others even resist accepting our students’ diplomas, but we are glad others recognize us,” he said.
The benefits of global recognition
“Full international recognition would unlock investments in the sector, boost collaboration from other established countries and promote student exchange programmes that will help Somaliland universities strengthen their systems by learning from them,” he said.
But in the meantime, Somaliland higher education institutions continue to reach out to other countries to request collaboration with the sector.
A glimmer of hope is emerging through negotiations with Taiwan, another state that lacks international recognition (15 states recognize Taiwan as a country).
On 1 July Taiwan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu and his Somaliland counterpart Yassin Haji Mohamoud made public a bilateral agreement between the two countries signed on 26 February. The two countries agreed to set up representative offices in each other’s capitals, aiding cooperation on education, agriculture and other areas of mutual concern. Even before the agreement Taiwan had been offering scholarships to hundreds of students from Somaliland.
Abdullahi Duale, a former lecturer at Admas University College-Hargeisa, said other countries were also offering scholarships to Somaliland students, including Britain under the Chevening Scholarship programme, and Cyprus.
“We might not have international recognition but our students are recognized across the world,” Dr. Saeed added.
Admas has its own overseas links, being a branch of the Addis Ababa, Ethiopia-based Admas University College established in 2006. Also, Mount Kenya University has also set up a branch in Somaliland – with a local Mount Kenya University being opened in 2012. Both branches offer international programmes mostly certified with their respective countries’ regulators. They both operate from the capital Hargeisa.
Looking ahead, Duale called for more government involvement in Somaliland higher education, with increased standardization of programmes “to improve the quality of our education”.
However, he suggested there may be too many universities in the country, given its small population. Unless the ministry of higher education works to boost teaching quality, “we will soon grapple with the problem other countries are having of substandard and compromised institutions,” he said.
Gaas called on institutions of higher learning in the country to diversify revenues streams and stop over-reliance on student fees and government subsidies.
“Sustainability is a big challenge to this sector…we need the sector to have new revenue streams by being innovative,” he said, suggesting this could be achieved through research. For this to happen, the sector needed more laboratories and ICT facilities.
He said the government was working on harmonization and standardization and had in 2013 established a higher education authority, the Somaliland Commission for Higher Education, to ensure quality assurance.
According to Muse, the government was committed to higher education. “Somaliland still does not have enough qualified lecturers, but as a government, we are committed to building internal capacity within universities as well as setting up and supporting the entire higher education infrastructure by increasing national financing.”
Like countries worldwide, Somaliland higher education has had to struggle with the impacts of COVID-19, with some universities already reeling from financial losses ahead of a planned September resumption of contact teaching across all universities, which was halted from 31 March.
“We have really suffered due to this pandemic,” Muse said. Some universities, such as Amoud, Hargeisa, Gollis, Admas and Mount Kenya, staged online classes and even administered examinations, but others (Muse declined to give names, saying these were usually bodies with comparatively few resources) were unable to do this. “Most parents refused to pay fees because of hard economic times, and this will put our recovery to the test,” he said.
Muse said the ministry has already released guidelines on how universities should operate once physical lectures are resumed.
“We will expect all universities to observe social distancing, everyone on campus to wear masks, have hand sanitizers, and the [government] committee on COVID-19 and the ministry will be watching out to ensure compliance,” Muse said.
By Ramadhan Rajab