By Dr John Law

04 June 2014 - 09:56

Photo of half-finished construction on Benghazi University in 2012 (c) BBC World Service, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 and adapted from the original.
Photo of half-finished construction on Benghazi University in 2012 ©

BBC World Service, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 and adapted from the original.

In the aftermath of recent violence, the Libyan government is trying to repair and improve its higher education sector to meet massive demand from the country's young population. The British Council's Dr John Law explains how Libya is developing its universities.

What’s the current higher education landscape like in Libya? 

Libyans recognise higher education as critical to modernising and developing their country. There's unstoppable demand for access. However, Libya’s universities are functioning in very difficult circumstances -- both in terms of social, economic, security and political problems, and in the context of internationalisation.

Libya has 6.2 million people, spread over 1,750,000 square kilometres. The population density is 50 persons per square kilometre in the two northern regions of the country, but falls to less than one person per square kilometre elsewhere. The vast majority of Libyans (90 per cent) live in less than ten per cent of the land area, primarily along the coast. Around 88 per cent of the population is urban, mostly concentrated in the two largest cities, Tripoli and Benghazi.

There are 12 public universities, five private universities, 16 state technical faculties and 91 higher technical and vocational institutes. Libya has half a million students in all fields of higher education, of which more than half (59 per cent) are female. Most students (around 90 per cent) are enrolled in public universities.

In 2013, more than 14,000 Libyans studied abroad in more than 30 countries. The UK ranks as the most popular destination for Libya’s scholars, with 2,761 studying in British universities. Egypt was second (2,046) and the US third (1,561). There are more postgraduate Libyan students in the UK than undergraduates -- 1,075 postgraduate research and 430 postgraduate taught students. Scholarships are available, intended to boost the number of Libyan postgraduates coming to the UK for PhD studies.

Just how big is the task of developing Libya’s higher education system?

Poor investment during the Gadhafi years combined with recent events have resulted in an education system with diminished human capital and a weak infrastructure. The country has lost crucial links that would encourage a culture of creativity and innovation. Outdated curricula no longer match Libyans' academic, social or economic aspirations, and the teaching methods, or pedagogy, often lack a student-centred and learning-led approach. These serious issues in capacity, security and bureaucracy are common in war-torn countries, and they invariably hinder progress towards rehabilitating the higher education sector.

Given Libya’s chaotic recent history and devastated infrastructure, isn’t higher education a ‘luxury’ that comes after political and economic stability?

Higher education is under huge pressure from Libya’s government to prepare the next generation of graduates with the relevant skills to encourage innovation and economic growth. There is huge demand to grow global networks of researchers, students, and institutions that can help Libya recover and develop.

Libya's Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research is preparing a new law on higher education. It aims to restructure and consolidate Libya's higher education provision, focusing on access, equity, diversity, and to build greater capacity for high-level research. A vital component will be to re-engage with the international community. By re-establishing links with other countries, Libya's government hopes to develop its universities' capacity, and to reinvigorate their critical role within the reconstruction of a secure, stable, and prosperous society.

How can UK universities help their Libyan counterparts? And conversely, what can UK universities learn from Libya?

Nations must diversify and look into new sectors if they are to stay or become successful 21st-century knowledge economies. Multilateral collaboration can also help them work on challenges of a global nature. We need new approaches to developing the workforce and education reform.

The Libyan Authority for Research, Science and Technology runs 12 research centres, through which it hopes to strengthen international research co-operation. Some of the areas of research it has prioritised include biotechnology applications, medicine, desert society growth studies, economics, and renewable energy.

For such co-operation to flourish, we need to understand the different cultural environment and social context that Libyan universities are operating in. This is particularly important in political science, international relations and education. We must find ways of working which are sensitive to the cultures of the people involved.

To meet the increased demands for improvement in Libya’s higher education institutions, we need higher education partnerships. Work needs to be done in quality assurance of institutions and programmes, funding and governance, and to increase the use of information technology. We should make a detailed assessment of the needs, capabilities and pressures on Libya's people, institutions and systems, and come up with interventions that make the best use of the UK's international resources, despite financial, systemic or institutional limitations.

The data above is taken from the Libyan QA Board.

For more news, events and reports on higher education, connect with us on LinkedIn. You can also find out more about our offer in Libya.

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