Since its political revolution in 2011, Libya has faced ongoing internal conflicts, and the future of this new democracy continues to be filled with doubt. Libya’s current central government struggles for legitimacy and lacks real power. Heavily armed militias, bands of former rebels, regularly defy the government and threaten Libyan oil exports, the country’s primary source of revenue. If Libya is to build a new, unified nation, it will need to overcome long-standing regional, ethnic, and ideological divisions previously kept in check only by the power of dictatorship.
Foremost, Libya requires a stable security situation and sound legal frameworks for government and business to operate within. Such factors, however essential, will only work to stabilize the immediate situation. Long-term democratic and economic stability requires reform across a variety of sectors, one of the most important of which is higher education. Healthy and effective universities are essential for training the scientists, engineers, bureaucrats, entrepreneurs and teachers required if democracy in Libya is to succeed.
First, Libyan higher education must play a role in preparing for the transition to a post-petroleum Libyan economy. The current economy relies almost entirely on public-sector jobs funded by oil and gas exports. Oil and gas production accounts for 65 percent of Libya’s GDP and 98 percent of government funds. While oil and gas are valuable resources, that can fund needed reforms, there will inevitably come a time when reserves are exhausted. The current role that oil and gas play in the Libyan economy is not sustainable. Libya must educate a population with the breadth of knowledge and skills capable of diversifying its economy.
Libyan higher education can also position itself to play a more direct role in the economy. A generation from now, it is possible that Libya could become a regional higher education hub. While this idea may seem far reaching, it is within the culture and capabilities of the country, where higher education is viewed as a natural right, and it is supplied to all Libyans free of charge. The country has an educated population and the institutional foundation in place to make such a vision possible, if matched with the right reform and enough will.
Second, if Libya is to have the robust civil institutions it needs to succeed as a democracy in the long term, its educational system must start changing today. Libya drastically over-produces science and engineering graduates. For reasons typical under dictatorship, Gaddafi devalued and defunded the humanities and social sciences. These fields must be expanded in today’s Libya. It is these fields that will more likely foster the broad-minded, critical thinkers and communicators that will be civically engaged and will maintain transparent, democratic institutions.
Today, record numbers of Libyan students are studying outside of the country, and foreign governments seem eager to accept them and their Libyan-government funding. In March of this year the U.S.–Libya Higher Education Task Force met in Washington for the first time with the goal of spurring Libyan economic growth by increasing the number of Libyan-funded graduate students in areas of critical need. Other nations are using more out-of-the-box approaches to engage with Libya and recruit students. As part of an effort to double its intake of international college students, the Canadian embassy in Tripoli recently hosted a two-day “virtual education mission.” This event connected Libyan ministries and universities with 13 Canadian universities and educational organizations via teleconference with the goal of opening channels of communication between potential partners.
Ultimately, however, sending their best and brightest to be educated abroad will not address Libya’s long-term problems. Libya’s own system of higher education will have to overcome damage resulting from 43 years under Gaddafi. During the dictatorship, universities were negatively impacted by the regime’s ideology, cronyism and political whims. Today the system is dangerously overcrowded and lacks essential resources. Its two largest institutions, the Universities of Tripoli and Benghazi, each have approximately 100,000 students, far more than they are designed for. Libyan universities lack fundamental tools taken for granted in many international institutions, including adequate IT infrastructure, basic assessment practices, and transparent management policies.
There are two paths to reform for Libyan higher education, though they are not mutually exclusive. The first involves a complete re-invention of Libyan higher education by founding all new institutions outside of the state system. The current public universities in Libya work within a monolithic ministry and are limited by government funding. In forming new, more nimble, institutions, some Libyan academics have looked to U.S. non-profit, private institutions as models. Already in Libya, several small, for-profit institutions have had some success working outside of the ministry. International schools, operating with U.S. or European standards and practices, are another model, and one that has worked in the region. The American University in Cairo, for instance, has operated in Egypt since 1919. Such an institution in Libya could serve as competition for the country’s public institutions and influence systemic change.
The other path to reform for Libyan higher education is through more gradual, internal influences. This course would take strong internal leadership as well as international support. One means by which this change can occur is the establishment of faculty development centers at Libyan institutions. Such centers are common at many international institutions; they teach pedagogy, facilitate assessment, and disseminate best practices to faculty, often improving both teaching and research. In Libya, such centers could also serve as a means by which the international community could engage more directly with Libyan educators. Such centers could serve as a point of contact between global educators and NGOs and Libyans at the local level.
Libya’s immediate security and political problems are of course a serious concern, but nation-building is not a matter of months or years, but generations. Higher education reform is necessary for the new Libyan nation to win the “long game” and build a stable, transparent democracy and robust economy.