Lesson in Cooperation
Sudan’s higher education minister on exchanges with China
With 2014 marking the 55th anniversary of the establishment of China-sudan diplomatic ties, a high-level Sudanese educational delegation headed by Sumaia Mohamed Ahmed Abukashawa, Sudan’s Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, visited China at the invitation of China’s Ministry of Education. During the four-day visit starting November 24, 2014, the minister sat down with Chinafrica reporter Liu Jian and shared her views on Sino-sudanese educational exchanges and cooperation.
Chinafrica: How do China and Sudan cooperate in the field of higher education and scientific research?
Sumaia Mohamed Ahmed Abukashawa: We have educational cooperation in different fields. There are official connections to those ties in terms of scholarships [and] assistance, especially in vocational training and education. The cooperation is also related to cultural relations in terms of language learning on both sides. In the last few years, the cooperation has become more elaborate and extensive. We have exchanges of graduate students, especially those prepared to pursue a master’s or doctoral degree in the fields such as education, applied sciences, medicine, engineering, physics and agriculture. We also have Chinese students coming to Sudan on exchange programs either for short trainings or pursuing university degrees.
The University of Khartoum partnered with China’s Yangzhou University in 2010 under the China-africa Universities 20+20 Cooperation Plan. In which areas do you think our universities should cooperate?
There are many areas where universities can cooperate, but the most important one is joint research. When they have joint research or teaching programs, Chinese university professors come to teach specific subjects in Sudan or vice versa. The universities usually have exchange programs between staffs. The staffs would see a different setup and a different culture; they get experience and can transfer that to their country. Usually it’s both ways, in two directions.
We’d like to increase the number of staff in the exchange programs. We hope more Chinese professors can come and teach in Sudan. For a long time, all the foreign teachers were from [economically] advanced countries. Now we are open to Asia, especially China. For example, we have the Confucius Institute in the University of Khartoum. Most Chinese teachers come to teach the Chinese language there. The institute is open to other universities and communities. People who would like to learn Chinese are also welcome. Looking into the future, we are hoping to have more collaboration on applied sciences.
How is scientific research used to help students develop interest in science?
There are many ways in which students can be made to get interested in science. First of all, by the way they are taught science itself; second, by giving them small projects to research. At the university level, we have graduation projects in different areas. Students can choose which areas they want to research in. They go and do initial research and experiment. They get results, analyze them and are encouraged to go in the area of science.
If you want them to get really interested in science, it should start early, from the primary school, by introducing scientific experiments [and] advances. [We can] get them interested in science in general, and take them to scientific museums. Many students want to go to the easy job-finding sciences such as medicine and engineering. I think students should also be encouraged to study pure sciences such as physics, mathematics, chemistry and biology. If you don’t have basic sciences, you cannot develop applied sciences well.
What is being done to advance Sudan’s scientific research to develop the tech sector?
The Internet is the biggest [advantage] in the region, [making] research available. Scientists and students can find articles and journals online. We established research laboratories specialized in agriculture, energy, animal studies, medical research and basic sciences. We are funding research in different areas, and also funding staff members’ research. They apply for a research grant; there is competition and those who win get the grant. This is one way
of encouraging research.
We need the appropriate technology to solve our own problems, such as diseases, sanitation, water availability, population and immigration. We also do some search on earth sciences. Scientists are encouraged to apply science to meet our own needs. We have collaboration with other African countries, and conduct joint research with other institutions.
What role can Sudanese students play at home after studying on scholarships in China?
The first role is that they are a bridge to establish better relations with China. As they stay in China, they know the culture and the people. When they go back, they are like ambassadors. Second, they could implement what they have learned here. They did research in their fields, enhanced their teaching experience and developed skills here. When they go back, especially university staff, they will go and teach and convey what they learned to their students and colleagues, [modifying] it according to Sudanese needs. They bring back some Chinese flavor in a Sudanese university. Some staff members still keep the connection with China in terms of joint research, joint publication of papers and articles, and exchange of visits. We are also thinking of having a China alumni association to get students who graduated from China together, so that they can share experiences and exchange ideas.
What is being done to help Sudanese graduates find jobs?
First, 2015 is the year of employment. Our ministry plans to work with the Ministry of Labor to get more employment chances for graduates. There will be a specific strategy and more jobs for students in agriculture, veterinary science, humanities and arts in general.
Second, the government also opened microfinancing for graduate students. Sudan’s commercial banks usually allocate 7 percent to 14 percent of microfinancing for micro-scale projects for graduate students. Our policy is to encourage graduates not to depend on government employment. The private sector is [another] direction graduates can go into.
In terms of educational opportunities, how is gender equality realized in Sudan?
In higher education, there are more female students. In 2014, the university entrance rate for females was 52 percent, while the rate for males was 48 percent. This has been [the case] for the last 10 years. In our universities, the top 100 students are mostly female. In medicine, about 80 percent are female, while in science, around 70 to 75 percent are female. And this is countrywide. In Sudan, the society is very open to women. If you have gender balance in education, you will have gender balance in employment, and later on you will have gender balance in decision-making and opportunities.
What are the challenges facing higher education in Sudan? Can China-sudan educational cooperation help address those challenges?
Finance would be the number one challenge. If we had more finance, we would open more universities, we would take in more students, and we would have more employment for staff. So the country’s financial situation is a limiting factor. Although it’s better now, we are opting for the best.
The second challenge is the migration of qualified staff to other countries. We cannot compete in terms of payment, but we tried to solve this problem. In 2012, we changed the labor law to exempt university staff from [mandatory] retirement. [Retirement] age was 60, but now is 65. We also increased staff pay and employment benefits to let them [be] satisfied and stay. Through our educational cooperation with China, we have more staff trained and they get master’s and doctoral degrees on scholarships in China.
How do you see future prospects for cooperation?
I expect more cultural relations in terms of research cooperation, and more people-to-people connection. China built the Friendship Hall in Khartoum, and we have our acrobats trained [by Chinese] in Khartoum. The contribution is more visible [through economic relationships] in the oil fields, building pipelines. We have more Chinese coming to Sudan working in construction. I expect more cooperation in higher education because we are proposing that some Chinese universities [open] branches in Khartoum. We will have more language exchange programs, more scholarships between the two sides, and more advanced research collaboration in both sciences and humanities.
Sudan’s commercial banks allocate 7-14 percent of microfinancing for microscale projects for graduate students
Sumaia Mohamed Ahmed Abukashawa, Sudan’s Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research