A university should be an idyllic space where top-level academic brains leverage on cutting-edge research technology to advanced knowledge for a better universe.
A good university should be the cauldron in which hitherto unknown ideas are boiled through scientific inquiry to provide solutions to seemingly intractable problems that humanity has grappled with for eons.
But when commercial considerations start taking precedence over rigorous academic inquiry, an institution of higher learning ceases being a citadel of knowledge. It cedes its claim to academic excellence to become just another business venture whose sole goal is lining the owners’ pockets.
Sadly, the latter case aptly sums the case of higher learning Somalia for the past two decades.
From one state university in Mogadishu in 1991, Somalia has seen the proliferation of universities at a geometric pace in utter disregard for quality. These institutions, strewn across the country in patterns that follow the country’s peace map, paint a bleak picture of the higher education scene in the country.
It is unconscionable that at a time when the world is increasingly raising the threshold of university teaching staff qualifications, higher learning institutions in Somalia have no qualms allowing a holder of an undergraduate degree to teach at university level.
It is also tragic that most institutions of learning in the country have not had to contend with any quality specifications for as long as civil war lasted since early nineties slightly over two decades ago.
It would be imprudent for any country to allow the title of university to be used by outfits that do not conform to internationally recognised basic academic standards. As a matter of fact, such basic standards should form the preliminary criteria for accreditation of universities in Somalia.
Perhaps the most farcical part is that, while the education system should progressively have fewer learners as one goes up the ladder, the Somalia edifice operates in stark contrast to this time-honored trend.
Thus, instead of an inverted pyramid where secondary school leavers are more than university entrants, the situation in Somalia is that there are 100-odd universities admitting only 30,000 secondary school leavers.
The illogical implication is that even if all secondary leavers were to be anomalously admitted to university in Somalia, there would be university to spare.
This looks ludicrous compared to the situation in a country like Kenya, where with a mind-boggling 700,000 secondary school graduates, there are only 39 public universities.
Never mind that in Kenya, the agency regulating higher learning has recently embarked on the process of further whittling down the number of institutions of higher learning in that country.
For inexplicable reasons, universities in Somalia do not see the need to improve systems so as to be able to train more doctors, engineers and other personnel who will be crucial to the country’s reconstruction after decades of war.
Instead of aligning educational curricular with reconstruction needs, the higher learning institutes in the country have been fixated on churning out more Sharia and law and business graduates. The future of these students is, sadly, uncertain as their papers may carry little or no academic weight beyond the country’s borders.
Admittedly, a number of universities in the capital Mogadishu and other parts, including Somaliland and Puntland in the north, are working constantly to improve the quality of higher learning. This has been made possible by external financial and technical support. Nevertheless, the majority of the universities in the country are still lagging quality-wise and something needs to be done – and urgently.
The starting point should be establishing a regulatory framework to instill some semblance of seriousness in the higher education sub-sector. There is also need to move with alacrity to enforce the Education Act, which will hopefully iron out the structural and policy bottlenecks that hamper quality.
On the political front, there is need for sensitization campaigns to ensure the much-needed education reforms are not misconstrued to mean that the new government of Somalia is waging an economic war with the business barons who seem to exact a vice-like grip on the higher learning sub-sector.
In the days to come, whether Somalia will appear on the list of countries with credible training institutions depends very much on the thoroughness of the ongoing educational reforms.
For it is untenable for any country with pretensions to competitiveness at the global marketplace to allow a situation where the need for a responsive education system is sacrificed at the altar of profits.
For Somalia to unlock its vast potential after two decades of political instability, it must not allow its education system to become an unregulated open-air market where degree certificates are sold to the highest bidder.
The writer is a PhD candidate and a former Education minister in Somalia
Abdi Dahir Osman