Young Libyans celebrate the 'Liberation Day' anniversary. (Image credit: Nader El-Gadi)
British Council Libya director Cherry Gough explains why higher education is a priority for post-revolution Libya – and why the UK should pay close attention.
The scale of the Libyan government’s post-graduate scholarship programme boggles the mind. ‘Is it right that there are 5,000 postgraduate scholarships this year?’ I ask, just to check I’m keeping up. ‘10,000,’ the manager of the scheme dryly corrects me, ‘for at least the next three years’. ‘Really?’ I ask, ‘But there have only been 280 so far this year’. ‘We’ve only just started’, he replies.
And how many of those students are bound for the UK? At least 50 per cent – and more will go if we can make the visa regime easier, they say. Yes, well, that’s a bit of a big ask. But when you look at the numbers…
5,000 postgraduate students heading to the UK each year. Plus their spouses, plus their children. Their fees? Let’s say £10,000 per year. Living costs – £30,000? That’s £40,000 per scholar – times 5,000. Yes, count the zeros, that adds up to £200 million a year for the UK economy.
So it’s probably not surprising that when Libya’s Head of Universities, Director and Manager of the Scholarships Programme, and the Chair of the Vocational Education Board agreed to come to London with us to speak to representatives of British universities, it was standing room only.
What did we want from this meeting? What the Libyan Ministry of Education wants is support for reconstruction: Libyan universities are in a pretty bad state. Unlike Eastern Europe after 1989, where a bit of updating would quickly take the (basically excellent) universities to world class level, the Libyan system needs much, much more work. Curricula and teaching methods are outdated. Many university buildings are in a state of extraordinary disrepair; there are no IT networks, few libraries, broken furniture. And the students, many of whom risked their lives for the Revolution, want more and want it soon.
So for the UK it’s important to focus on building relationships. Libyans, like almost everyone else in the world, don’t want just to be consumers. Yes, the scholarship programme is great news for the UK, but simply ‘buying’ a foreign education isn’t enough in the long term. Libyans have bigger hopes and aspirations. They want their own world-class education system. They want respect. They want their young people to get qualifications that will enable them to become productive and successful members of society. The British universities that offer genuine expertise to help Libya achieve these aspirations have everything to gain in the long run.
All the speakers in London gave the same message: UK universities have to (re-)establish their relationships with Libyan universities. Preferably now and preferably in Libya, and, yes, despite their concerns about security there. This is where it gets difficult for us at the British Council – we don’t want to tell the universities to disregard security, but they do need to take a balanced approach. The fact of the matter is that we at the British Council live here, and we’re not mad, rash or complacent. We assess the risks on a day-by-day basis and take precautions as necessary. Sadly, at the moment, we don’t go to Benghazi and the East. However, we do travel freely around Tripoli in the daytime, and areas around the capital.
The truth is that there’s still business to be done in difficult places; the nice, comfortable ones are already full up. And (I’ll let you into a secret now) working with Libya can be a joy. That’s why there are Brits and others who’ve been here for years, who had their property stolen, their premises looted and themselves arrested during the Revolution, who don’t know which way things are going to go, who fear crime and worry that the militias are going to decide they were too close to Ghadaffi. And they stay, because, well, there’s something about the place and the people that touches your heart. Really. Just come here and see.