Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Education in Sudan: A Long History but Deeply Troubled Reality

Specials- Al-Neelain University
Sudanese students walk past electoral campaign posters of President Omar al-Beshir at the campus of Al-Neelain University in Khartoum. Photo AFP

Historical documents indicate that education in Sudan has a long history, and that the Sudanese people had learned to read and write Egyptian during the Kingdom of Kush (1070 BC-350 AD). The Meroitic script, used to write the Kushite language, originated in the Sudanese city of Meroe between 700 BC and 300 BC. Regular education started with the establishment of khalawi (plural of khalwa, meaning religious classroom), which are believed to have emerged with the spread of Islam in the 13th century, and whose role was limited to memorization and interpretation of the Koran, teaching Islamic jurisprudence and the basics of Arabic and arithmetic. The number of khalawi in 1899 during the Mahdia State was estimated at 1,500, contributing to the literacy of about 60,000 children.

Regular schools first appeared in Sudan during Turkish-Egyptian rule (1821-1885), and the state established more schools during British-Egyptian rule (1898-1956). At the time, girls had limited educational opportunities compared to boys. Schools of the Egyptian educational mission contributed significantly to public education in Sudan, as did schools established by foreign communities and Christian evangelicals. Moreover, private education began in the 1950s, and has seen a significant boom in the last three decades.

Education in Sudan has undergone several changes and modifications since the beginning of the 20th century. General education was initially divided into three stages of four years each: primary, middle and secondary school. In 1970, under General Jaafar Nimeiri‘s government (1969-1985), primary education was extended to six years; middle and secondary school remained three years.

Under the current so-called ‘salvation government’ of President Omar al-Bashir, the first and second stages were merged into one, making primary education eight years. This was followed by three years of secondary education, reducing the total years of education from 12 to 11. This is in addition to two years of pre-school in a kindergarten or khalawi, as stipulated by the Education Planning and Organization Act.

Education can be divided into regular education, which consists of primary and secondary school; and nonregular education, which includes khalawi, technical and farming schools, nutrition centers and schools for children with special needs. Secondary school covers four courses: academic, in which students choose scientific or literary tracks; technical, which has industrial, commercial and agricultural tracks; vocational; and Islamic. The first course is the most prevalent, covering some 97 percent of educational institutions and the total number of secondary school students enrolled in the four courses.

Higher education began with the establishment of the Omdurman Scientific Institute in 1912 – an Islamic high school similar to al-Azhar in Egypt — and the emergence of higher colleges at the Gordon Memorial College, which was established by the British in 1902. Until the salvation government came to power in 1989, there were seven universities in Sudan and a number of institutes and colleges.

In late 1998, the salvation government issued a package of resolutions referred to as ‘The Revolution of Higher Education’, which mainly stipulated multiplying admissions to universities and higher institutes and replacing English with Arabic as the medium of instruction at universities. Accompanying these resolutions was a decision issued by the minister of higher education to establish 19 new government universities. Moreover, the government endorsed the establishment of scores of private universities and colleges. Sudan now has 36 government universities, 19 private universities, 52 national and private colleges, 24 technical colleges and eight research centres.

Despite this growth, education in Sudan faces many challenges, most prominent of which is the high number of dropouts. Although the current constitution provides that the state will guarantee free and mandatory primary education, statistics indicate that only 76 percent of primary school-aged children go to school and 28 percent of secondary school-aged children do.

Specials- Education in Sudan
Young Sudanese school girls walk home in Khartoum. Photo AFP

According to information published in 2007, the illiteracy rate in Sudan was 50 percent among women and 30 percent among men. However, last year, the government announced that overall illiteracy had dropped to 24 percent.

Widespread poverty and conflict, a lack of awareness of the importance of education and chronic underdevelopment contribute to the poor education levels.

According to a World Bank report released in 2016, children across Sudan struggle to gain a public education, and as a result, more than 40 percent of children between the ages of 5 and 13 lack any kind of schooling. More than half a million children are at risk of dropping out of school. Bedouin children, homeless children and children living in war-torn areas are most vulnerable to exclusion, while girls are more likely not to complete their education than boys.

Free education has become nothing but ink on the paper of the constitution. All universities and almost all primary and secondary schools ask their students to pay registration fees at the beginning of the school year. Sometimes students are also asked to pay other fees throughout the year, which deprives many children of their right to education because of poverty. The problem is aggravated by the inability of a large number of families to provide breakfast for their children, meaning the children go to school hungry or have to work instead.

The quality of higher education has deteriorated markedly under the salvation government for several reasons. The Education Planning and Organization Act stipulates that the main objectives of general education should be to ‘consolidate the religious beliefs and morals of young students’, and ‘to educate them about religious teachings and traditions and have a generation of free and responsible believers while concentrating on social values driven by good deeds and piety’. It is apparent that interest in achieving such ideological objectives has come at the expense of the educational process and significantly contributed to students’ low academic levels in Arabic and English, as well as in natural and social sciences due to the rising number of Islamic subjects.

Decreased public spending is another major problem. The total spending allocated to education in 2017 amounted to 829 million Sudanese pounds (approximately $41.4 million), or less than 1 percent  of the total public spending of 96.2 billion pounds. This contrasts with 29,122 billion pounds – or 42 percent  of public spending – allocated to security and defence.

The main crises resulting from the lack of funding include the deteriorating level of public education facilities, especially in rural and peri-urban areas. In some locations, students study outdoors, under trees or in classrooms built of straw. In the cities, one can see overcrowded classrooms, dilapidated buildings, health facilities and furniture, a lack of equipment and supplies, poor educational tools and evidence of extreme poverty. The lack of funding is also manifested in a shortage of textbooks, poor salaries for teachers and a shortage of adequately trained teaching staff. All these problems have led to the emergence and spread of private tutoring in recent decades.

At the university level, many agree that the decision to ‘revolutionize’ higher education increased the number of students enrolled in universities. However, the quality of education has declined because the greater student number was not accompanied by a proportionate increase in the necessary funding and capabilities.

Some critics say the decision did not take into consideration labour market needs, and many graduates have struggled to find work. Further, the private higher education sector has expanded without adequate governmental supervision and control. There are more than 80 private universities and higher education institutions in Sudan compared to 36 public. However, the five oldest public universities, established long before the present salivation government, are the best and still attract the brightest students.

Many have criticized the Arabization of university education, calling it a hasty and uncalculated ideological approach. Others have blamed Arabization for the deteriorating academic and scientific standards and for impeding efforts to stay abreast of accelerating scientific advancement.