LONDON—A conference held by the Libyan embassy here offered a snapshot into the struggles that country is still facing in higher education more than two and half years after the death of Muammar Gaddafi whose regime isolated the country’s universities for 42 years.
In the midst of Libya’s precarious politics, a group of mostly Libyan and British academics met in early June to discuss the country’s academic problems and possible solutions while also attempting to build bridges. The former Libyan Minister of Higher Education, Naeem Al-Gheriany, summarized the conference’s main talking point: “The higher-education system in Libya needs an entirely new master plan.”
According to El-Gheriany and the other major speakers, Libyan universities are overcrowded, underfunded, stiflingly centralized and lacking in quality. Libyan officials flagged medicine as being an area that is in particular need of reform so the universities can begin contributing effectively to the country’s healthcare.
“Coming with actual solutions would be difficult, but as far as I can remember this is the first open discussion I’ve witnessed in a conference of this magnitude about the state of higher education in Libya,” said Rhadia El-Jazi, a Libyan doctoral student in neuroscience at Herriot Watt University in Edinburgh.
The security situation was the elephant in the room and the main question on the minds of every British institution present. “Security is a short-term problem,” was Gheriani’s response. “Education is long-term.”
British organizations said the difficulty in working with Libyan institutions was in trying to figure out whom they were supposed to be working with. The past few years have seen Libyan institutions and personnel shift at a swift rate. As a result even though Libyan Embassy’s cultural attaché organized the forum, it suffered from the absence of any real Libyan higher-education policymakers. “When we organized the conference, we thought we would be getting more ministers and decision-makers,” a Libyan official said on condition of anonymity. “But it’s just the nature of Libya now that everything can change quickly.”
The head of the higher-education committee in the Libyan General National Congress, Salah Meto, one of the only guests currently holding public office, quipped that he was not sure if he still held his position back in Libya.
During the Qaddafi years, Libya suffered a nose dive in standards, said a former deputy minister of higher education, Fathi Al-Akkari. “There was no process of accreditation, if you were with the government you were accredited, that was it,” said Gheriani.
The country is also now having to recuperate academically from a time when foreign-language training was extremely weak, adding to the isolation of universities. Study out of the country for undergraduates and those seeking master’s and doctoral degrees became more limited, since any such student needed a year of language training.
To try to fix that problem, the Libyan government created ten language centers in Libyan universities. The program, which was supported by the British Council, was meant to encourage studying in the United Kingdom by preparing students in English. The Libyans would like to see more of a two-way exchange: “Perhaps these centers could also teach Arabic as a second language to U.K. students in Libya,” said Meto, of the National Congress.
Libyan-supported scholarships seem to be at the heart of Libya-U.K. cooperation. In 2013 the British Council estimates that 2,417 Libyan students were studying in the United Kingdom. Many Libyan Ph.D. students were at the conference to present their projects and they said going to a foreign country was their only sensible option. “I think Libya did produce many great minds, but unfortunately lately they have had to travel abroad to develop their academic work further,” said Ashraf Ahmed, a researcher at the University of Sheffield.
Ahmed’s field, medicine, was a focal point of the conference since it is “an area of extreme need,” according to the Libyan Embassy’s cultural attaché and the conference organizer, Abdelbassit Gadour. Libya’s medical schools have 25,000 students studying to be doctors and only 2,500 studying to be nurses, according to a former minister of health, Fatima El Hamroush. “These two figures are lopsided and should be the other way around,” she said. Considering that Libya now has 8,280 working doctors, many of the students studying medicine now will not be able to find work.
According to Mohamed Al-Gomati, an electronic optics professor at the University of York, the gap in clinical training and academic motivation is hurting Libyan science students. Gheriani feels that Libya does not spend nearly enough on its students. The majority of the 25,000 will not be adequately qualified, he said.
The conference aimed at calling for a way to use the international expertise at hand to not only help improve the education of Libya’s top-performers but to use that for the betterment of Libya in a direct way. “The entire atmosphere in Libya is not ripe for any sort of change or conversation to alter the system—since before the revolution but now especially,” said one student. “I’d like to go back and teach in Libya, but we’ll have to wait and see,”
The conference was a breath of fresh air for her: “Just talking openly about it is great.”