By Tarek Abd El-Galil
Members of a USAID-supported Libyan youth group train university students on Libya’s transition to democracy. (USAID)
A few days ago, Osama al-Salhin, 26, celebrated his graduation from Al-Arab Medical University’s Faculty of Pharmacy in Benghazi. His education should have taken five years. Instead, it took eight. Much of the disruption to his education occurred after the revolution that overthrew Gaddafi.
“Since 2011, university study has been interrupted because of the deteriorating security,” said al-Salhin. “I quit my studies for about two years before I was able to resume them last year. I cannot believe I have finally graduated.”
Osama is one of more than 342,000 students who are struggling to complete their studies at Libyan universities because of the political conflicts in the country, according to a report by the Libyan Organization of Policies and Strategies issued in May of 2016.
Home to, by some estimates, the largest oil reserves in Africa, Libya was previously one of the richest countries in the region. But since 2014, continuous internal battles for power among three governments and their affiliated militias have divided the country and trapped and frustrated its youth. The chaos seems to be escalating.
Since the regime overthrow in 2011, three major factions have been fighting each other for power in Libya. Two of them are in Tripoli, the Libyan capital: the Al-Wefaq government headed by Fayez al-Sarraj, which is recognized internationally, and the National Salvation Government, led by Khalifa al-Ghawil.
A third government led by Abdullah Al-Thani in Al-Bayda, in the eastern part of the country, is also striving to be a national power. This state of political division causes many clashes, especially in Tripoli and the surrounding area in the west; Benghazi and its vicinity to the east; and Sabha and its surroundings to the south.
It also caused an economic crisis that has reduced the value of the Libyan dinar and created a shortage of cash at banks that delays payment of both government and private salaries throughout the country. The collapse of the national health-care system, and shortages of food, water, medicine, and electricity exacerbate the suffering of the country’s population.
“The lectures were often suspended because of battles near the university campus,” said al-Salhin. “Even when the clashes stopped, there were few lectures because of the lack of professors and the power cuts for long periods.”
Libya has more than 16 universities, including 12 public universities, according to the ministry of education. A number of institutions in Benghazi have been damaged in militia battles, including a building belonging to the Faculty of Arts at Benghazi University that was destroyed.
The civil war has also affected what students learn.
“Practical lessons are supposed to make up around 75 percent of the university’s total lectures,” said Yasin Taha Kariwi, a student at the University of Tripoli’s Faculty of Information Technology. “But the deteriorating security situation and the poor financial capacities of the university and students make the theoretical lessons more than 90 percent.” He noted that his faculty has more than 2,000 students, and only 20 professors.
Layla Maghrabi, who has studied agriculture and is now studying media at the Open University of Tripoli, agrees with Kariwi about the declining educational standards at Libyan universities. “Our curricula are too old to keep up with the modern developments,” she said. “For example, there is no course on electronic journalism. Teaching and examination methods are also outdated and the results are unreliable.” But Maghrabi believes that the lack of security on campus is the biggest problem.
“The militias guarding the university under the title of ‘university guards’ commit many violations, including harassment of female students, which has become a terrifying phenomenon,” she said. Often, she says, continuing violence blocks students and professors from reaching the lecture halls.
The University of Tripoli has around 2,800 professors and more than 70,000 students. The students are from Tripoli itself, and from the violence-affected cities of Benghazi, Sirte, and Derna.
Even in Tripoli, the poor security has interrupted studies since 2014, and the university has major financial problems. Most scientific projects and research had stopped by the end of 2015, and other academic spending was also halted.
While the professors technically get their salaries, they can withdraw less than a third of what they get paid from the banks, due to the cash shortage.
“The university is currently running under the authority of Al-Wefaq Government’s Ministry of Higher Education,” said Ass’ad Awnallah, a professor at the Faculty of Media and Arts and head of the University of Tripoli’s advertising design department.
“Fortunately, all the successive governments in Tripoli have made sure not to affect the University of Tripoli, as it is the only sector that continues to work despite all the deteriorated surrounding conditions.”
According to Awnallah, the University of Tripoli has witnessed three waves of faculty emigration. The first took place immediately after the revolution, when some of the faculty members affiliated with the former regime were arrested, while others left for fear of arrest.
Then, another group emigrated after the Libya Dawn Coalition, a group of largely Islamist rebel and armor brigades, took over Tripoli in 2014.
The latest wave of faculty departures, which is taking place now according to Awnallha, is due to the rapidly deteriorating economy. With the ceasing of oil exports, many major depositors withdrew their money from Libyan banks.
The withdrawals totaled an estimated 30 million Libyan dinars ($21.6 million), more than 70 percent of the country’s GDP.
“Many [professors] are looking for contracts at Arab universities in Jordan and Oman,” Awnallha said. “It is not something they should be blamed for, but it is a great loss for Libyan universities.”
Nawal al-Omrani, a professor at the University of Zawiyah’s Faculty of Engineering in Zuwara, in the far northwestern corner of the country, confirms the severe shortage of professors, which leads the university administration to employ new graduates, who only have bachelor’s degrees, as instructors.
“The situation is difficult,” she said. “The professors’ [monthly] salary does not exceed 1,800 Libyan dinars ($600), but recently, getting even 500 Libyan dinars ($83) has become almost impossible with no cash in banks.”
Students also suffer from the country’s cash crisis. During Gaddafi’s rule, Libyan students were awarded a scholarship of 800 Libyan dinars ($133) per semester. But the grant was reduced after Gaddafi was ousted to only 400 dinars ($66). More recently, students have complained of delays in receiving their grants.
“Many of my colleagues have dropped out of study after the suspension of scholarships, which used to help us pay for tuition and buy materials we needed to study,” said Layla, a second-grade student at the University of Omar Al-Mukhtar’s Faculty of Science in Al-Bayda in eastern Libya who asked that her full name not be used. “Studying scientific disciplines has become so difficult and expensive.”
Last month, Othman Abduljaleel, the Minister of Education in the Wefaq Government, issued a statement promising to solve all financial problems soon. But little relief seems to be in sight for Libyan students seeking an undergraduate education.
Tarek Abd El-Galil is an Egyptian journalist. He works as a deputy manager for the correspondents section at Tahrir newspaper and as a correspondent at correspondents.org and Al-Hayat TV. Tarek has a BA in journalism.