Small Grantee Feature: Expanding Opportunities for Libyan Higher Education

Categories: Recent Reports,Small Grantee Features

March 28, 2016

General_Peoples_Congress_Benghazi

Al Manar Royal Palace in central Benghazi, University of Libya’s first campus, founded by royal decree in 1955. Photo: AJ Lehsouni, Wikimedia Commons.

Interview with Amal Elobeidi, participant in Hollings Center small grant project

Last spring, two participants from the Hollings Center’s dialogue conference, “Expanding Opportunities for Libyan Higher Education,” completed a small grant project that brought two Libyan academics to Pomona College in California. The trip aimed to build linkages between Libyan and American social scientists while also providing training to Libyan faculty through class observations, faculty consultation, and expanded access to resources. Amal Elobeidi, a professor from the University of Benghazi, was one of the two Libyan academics who completed the trip. Hollings Center Assistant Director Sanem Güner recently spoke with Professor Elobeidi to gain insight into what she took away from her trip, the current state of higher education in Libya, and future projections based on political developments.

SG: How are you?

AE: Struggling. This is exhausting but good training for us. We are not in the location of our university. Our university was destroyed. Then it was divided into departments. We start our classes until 2 pm so that we reduce the hours teaching each course. Instead of 3 hours we do only 2. At the personal level, my brother’s still missing. We are divided as a family. My parents are still in Tobruk and two brothers. A sister in Istanbul. Two sisters in Benghazi, one came back from Egypt after her house was targeted in one of the warzone areas. But people are managing somehow. Benghazi is getting better too. It has to do with the spirit of the people and the city in general. Despite all the difficulties and the humanitarian issues, the city is doing good and we are trying to manage to live. It’s a good experience; probably one day we will be able to teach other countries about what we’ve been doing so far.

SG: How do you maintain a state of normalcy in your daily life as a university academic?

AE: This is one of the main points of resistance to the situation. Many people in higher education institutions are trying to be part of the normalization process. This has helped a lot. Many people left the city for various reasons. Some became refugees because they lost their houses, some people left for other cities or abroad for security reasons, etc. In a way the university or being back to university is one of the main remarkable things especially in these days. It’s helped a lot to build trust somehow that the situation could be better. This is the weight of the resistance somehow too. Unfortunately at the level of quality assurance we are not thinking very much about that. We are trying to prioritize our needs. The most important thing is to be back, teach, and conduct research. The University of Benghazi Research and Consulting Center even during the war did not stop working. Lots of research conducted regarding issues that arose in this period. For instance we conducted surveys on violence, we were part of the World Values Survey. Even though it was difficult, this was a great achievement. Other work has been done on the constitution. We’ve been part of a committee supporting the constitutional process. Academia managed to do substantial work. During the time we stopped teaching since May 2014, people managed to continue to write dissertations. We struggled to keep in touch with people despite power and internet cuts. And some students managed to finish their dissertations. The university administration is thinking hard on how to be back. It’s something symbolic in Benghazi for the university to be back. This encouraged lots of families to bring back their sons and daughters. Gave more support to the city.

We are not using many facilities as much as those studying science or medicine; I’m sure there are lots of difficulties regarding the use of labs, etc. Also our major problem is that we don’t have libraries. We are trying to use the internet or give students the material and ask them to copy the material, but it’s not enough. But it’s good for the university to be back – it’s a good sign, gives support to the daily life of the people. Thousands of students left the city and others had difficulties. Under those conditions, it was a major achievement to finalize the 2014 academic year by December and start the next year. The university has done a lot to impact the everyday daily life of the people in general.

SG: What about the students? What are their hopes and dreams? Are their hopes reinstated now that they have restarted university?

AE: We don’t have that much time to interact with students on these issues one on one. But when we talk about this in class – the future of the country, the students’ role – I see that most are not involved at all and are living marginally. Meaning their main concern is survival. But some others are keen to continue their studies, especially those who are in the final stage. Some are looking at opportunities abroad – getting scholarships or working for international organizations. Most of our students are very active on internet and social media, so they are integrated to the rest of the world and are linked to activist groups doing humanitarian work or organizations raising awareness on the constitution, democracy, civic state, etc. Others have their own different opinions, especially ones that are inclined towards Islamic thought. We need to conduct research to know what their hopes and plans are. At the moment the main concern is to finish their study they started already. Just to be able to finish their studies without any interruption will be the main achievement for them.

Some of our classes were interrupted because of security. There were times we had to immediately evacuate the building. The main concern for all of us is the security situation and having a strong government to manage and unite the country.

SG: Do you think that there will be a lot of brain drain? Are you worried that talented youth will go and not come back?

AE: This is their dream: to finish their study, have further degrees abroad. There are lots of people who are so keen to be part of the transitional process and to be part of rebuilding the country. So I don’t think most are going to go and never come back, but this needs to be further studied with a survey.

SG: How do you see the political process in Libya in the near future?  Do you see hope for unification, restoration of peace, and transition to a better form of governance?

AE: Many Libyans were supporting the government and the political dialogue process to bring the divided country back together.  The main concern now is that there are many others who are not supporting a unity government. There are many suspicions about this government especially because it is supported by many countries abroad. There are many groups with their own demands; for example, the eastern part of the country is more marginalized and neglected and nothing has changed since Gadhafi left. At the same time they think that some are not supporting the process but there is no other solution at the moment. I think the government should start and at the same time there are many other challenges on the ground, especially at the daily level of people’s lives. For instance we are not able to get cash from banks. The political process should start; the government should be approved by the House of Representatives in Tobruk.

I forgot to mention that a group of academics and experts under the umbrella of the UNDP and World Bank and some other international institutions, we are formulating a forum – Libyan Expert Forum – currently based out of Tunis. We drafted bylaws of this group and we are trying to bring together all the Libyans who have something to offer to the country and to support the new government. Our next meeting is going to be talking about what we have to do in the future.

SG: Do you talk about a transitional process, the constitution, etc? Do you think there will be receptiveness?

AE: That is what we hope. You can’t predict anything in Libya. There are so many dimensions and factors at play that cannot be predicted. In December of last year after the two sides signed the agreement on December 17th, we all thought in two weeks things would move on and the country would be more stable. This is what all Libyans thought. Unfortunately many other groups and conflicting interests complicated that. In my opinion all these groups all over the country need to think about the national interest of the country. This is what has been missing from everybody. There is a complex of interests and groups working for their own benefit without regard for the country in general.

SG: Are you hoping to give voice to that national interest in your Expert Forum?

AE:  This is one of the main aims of the Forum. When we bring together all these people from different backgrounds and specialties, we think this will help. It’s one of the main tools for dialogue between different groups, even within academia. Everyone has different interests, ideologies, but this is a good way to bring people and start talking.

SG: I want to tie this back to higher education and to your Hollings Center-supported visit to Pomona College. When you make a comparison between your university and Pomona, how would you compare and contrast them? For instance the relationship of faculty to students, university life, do you see similarities and differences? What have you taken back in terms of teaching methods, etc. Or do you think these two contexts are too different and not applicable to one another? What are your takeaways?

AE: It was a very interesting program. I’m sure I brought back many good memories and takeaways. At the same time, visiting Pomona or another higher education institution (I then went to Berlin as a guest faculty member) I thought to myself, there are no interruptions, no wars, this is a good university, people are leading a normal life, there are none of the other problems that affect a country in conflict. When I came back to Libya, I was talking about my experience and it was a way to encourage students in general and inspire my colleagues that our universities should be similar to those. At the same time there are many other priorities here in Libya. How can we ask students to participate in class if there is no library or internet? This is basically the daily needs for us at this time. The comparison is complicated because I cannot compare a destroyed university to Pomona. At the same time I got new ideas like starting new courses when the situation gets better; for instance, starting a course on American politics which we currently don’t have. Also I’m focused very much on teamwork in my teaching so we talk about issues and the outcome of this practice provides a good venue for communication among people with different viewpoints.

My experience at Pomona College was positive at all levels but unfortunately when I came back the university was still not functioning. I managed to bring students back together on social media groups (Facebook, Viber). When I meet with people and organizations working on higher education, I tell them, “What we need at the moment is everything.” So leaving aside my personal experience, which was a good one, these kinds of programs are more widely needed. The program was too short, I would have loved to get more access and learn more. My personal aim is how to manage to publish at the international level. I came from a city that was partially destroyed. My question was how to bring back the university. My demand from the universities I visit, especially in conflict areas, is how we bring back higher education in conflict and post-conflict areas. If there can be a seminar or a workshop on this topic, it would be useful for us and it would give more experience to a larger group of people. At Pomona, I enjoyed talking to students, lots of people were interested in the country and the situation. I’m recalling some of these experiences in my classroom here.