Education in Libya

Stagnation Instead of Innovation

Libya has one of the lowest levels of illiteracy in North Africa, and thousands of students graduate from Libyan universities every year. For Libyan journalist Mustafa Fetouri, however, the country puts too much emphasis on outdated curricula and learning by rote when it should be encouraging creativity in its education system and research sector

Female students in Libya in front of a poster of Col Gaddafi (photo: AP)
Falling educational standards: Libya's education system is suffering not only from the lack of a proper education policy but also from spending cuts

​​ The Libyan capital of Tripoli is home to more than fifty private universities and colleges; there is, however, only one state university and one semi-state-owned academy for postgraduate studies.

According to a UNESCO report from 2007, Libya ranks 113th in the world in terms of illiteracy levels. And although Libya's illiteracy rate of 17.6 percent is one of the lowest in North Africa, and although it has the third highest number of people in higher education of any Arab country apart from Jordan and Palestine, this oil-rich, sparsely populated country has a real problem when it comes to its education system – and that is its low quality.

In the 1970s and 1980s close monitoring and farsightedness were the defining features of Libya's education policy. Free state and compulsory education for all children under 15 years of age were introduced. Parents who did not send their children to school were prosecuted – as indeed is still the case. Over the last two decades, however, the standard of education has steadily declined.

Privatization as an emergency solution

The decline in educational standards is really down to the lack of a proper education policy and the spending cuts in education introduced in response to the economic embargo against Libya that followed the Lockerbie bombing of 1988. The high turnover of education ministers has also had a negative effect on the system and been a destabilizing factor.

The European School of Benghazi (photo: Wikipedia)
Quantity not quality: despite the fact that Libya has many privately run educational institutions, most of them are not recognised by the office of quality control affiliated to the Libyan education ministry

​​ One might expect the increase in private educational institutions at all levels to have been a good thing, but in fact, the opposite has been the case. The office of quality control affiliated to the Libyan education ministry recognises fewer than five private universities across the country; none of the others meet the quality standards.

One must also realise that very many of these private educational institutions did not come into existence as a result of any liberalization of education or higher education policies, but purely as a response to emergency. As the state revenues, which were heavily dependent on oil, began to decline as a result of the fall in oil prices in the 1980s, the Libyan government attempted to decrease the consequent financial burden on itself by a policy of privatization.

The vicious circle of poor education and a weak economy

Libya is thus very similar to other Arab countries with regard to its universities. The essence of the problem is the poor quality of their education. Though there are in fact many university graduates and highly qualified people, it is also they who make up the majority of the estimated 20 percent unemployed, most of those out of work being under 30. It is a situation loaded with contradiction and one that can be attributed to the poor quality of an education that employs outdated curricula and painstaking rote memorization in hermetically sealed classrooms.

Muammar Gaddafi (photo: AP)
In recent times, Libya's head of state, Muammar Gaddafi, has focussed only sporadically on the education of his people

​​ The disastrous consequences of this drum-it-into-them system, which characterises all areas of education in Libya, only really becomes visible at university level. The universities provide a level of education that tends to resemble something one might expect from a poor quality college evening class rather than a centre of academic excellence dedicated to research and societal progress.

Academic research, as such, simply does not exist. The result of this state of affairs is that students without intellectual curiosity or initiative are completely dependent on their teachers; the vicious circle of drummed-in education in anti-research, rote-learning-based, curricula remains unbroken. Only rarely are experimentation and creativity encouraged.

The entrepreneurial spirit that is so much a part of universities and research in Europe and the US – one need look no further than Google, the most famous Internet search engine, which was founded by students – hardly exists here.

Educational isolation rather than innovation

The gap between education and the labour market has become particularly apparent since the advent of economic liberalization in the early 1990s. Back then, foreign companies flooded into Libya. They were soon to discover, however, that their investments were not paying off; the employment market could not supply a sufficient number of suitably qualified personnel in spite of the large numbers of assorted graduates being turned out.

Inventive, short-term solutions, such as retraining and further training, were essential. Since they were not integrated into the long-term educational planning, however, those educational institutions below university level continued to struggle with the same problems they faced 20 years earlier.

Mustafa Fetouri (photo: DW)
"The entrepreneurial spirit that is so much a part of universities and research in Europe and the US hardly exists here," writes Mustafa Fetouri

​​The education policies in the region, as exemplified by Libya, also suffer from some very basic conceptual problems. Above all, what is missing is a comprehensive national strategy for a new educational policy. With regard to curricula, in particular, there has been no attempt to learn from the experiences of countries whose educational systems are further advanced than Libya's.

On the contrary, the trend has been to become increasingly inward-looking and isolationist. Modern technology is too rarely used – computers are hardly to be found in the schools and are severely underutilized in the universities. Inventiveness and inquiry are the obvious casualties of this lack of encouragement for independent academic research.

New and rapidly developing academic methods from abroad, such as practical applications from the fields of engineering, computer sciences and medicine, are not being "Arabised". In other words, they are not being linguistically or culturally adapted to local conditions and introduced into the country. Ultimately, this has led to a situation where Arab students abroad are extremely creative and innovative while their counterparts at home are exactly the opposite.

Mustafa Fetouri

© 2010

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

Mustafa Fetouri is a Libyan journalist and head of the Libyan Academy for Higher Education in Tripoli.

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/

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