Demand drivers for university education in Somaliland
The demand for higher education in Somaliland is extremely high
Prior to the establishment of its first university, Amoud, in 1998, Somaliland had no institutions of higher education. Although the Somali National University was established in the early-1970s when Somaliland was still part of Somalia, this university was located in Mogadishu some 850 km south of Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland.
For the majority of people residing in the present day Somaliland therefore, a university institution was something they had never seen. For most, university education was not something that they, themselves or their immediate relatives, had ever had access to.
From its emergence in 1998, the higher education sector in Somaliland has grown tremendously in regards to both the number of universities and that of students enrolled. From Amoud in 1998 the sector grew to twenty-eight universities in 2013/14. Fifteen of these were located in Hargeisa, a city of about one million people. The sector is highly fluid and incidences of new entries and exits are frequent.
The number of students enrolled has also grown drastically. From the first intake of about 60 students by Amoud in 1998, the sector boosted to over 18,000 students in 2013/14. This growth places Somaliland’s gross enrolment rate at this level of education on par or above many countries in the Sub-Saharan Africa region.
The wide range of courses provided by Gollis University in Hargeisa.
The demand for higher education is extremely high in Somaliland. A combination of demographic factors – over two-thirds of Somalilanders are under 30 years old – and the expansion of the lower levels of education during the post-war period have contributed to the growing demand for university education. The significant remittance income that households in Somaliland receive from their relatives abroad has also been key in allowing households access to university education.
Furthermore, the flexible entry requirements and the wide availability of evening classes has also allowed older individuals, professionals and civil servants to pursue university education that they did not have an opportunity to do so prior to the war.
This article examines key demand drivers for university education in Somaliland. The article utilises data from a tracer study of university graduates in Somaliland that I collected as part of my doctoral fieldwork from January to October 2013. The study traced 625 university graduates, covering the 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 cohorts, across three main urban centres in Somaliland – Hargeisa, Burao and Borama. Female graduates constituted 21 percent of the 625 traced graduates whilst the remaining 79 percent were males.
One of the questions graduates were asked was to recall the motivations that propelled them to pursue university education. The next sections analyse the top three responses provided by these graduates.
Why did you pursue university education?
Motivation to pursue education within development, in particular development economics, is mostly defined within the confinement of the human capital theory, a popular theory formalised in the 1960s by Theodore Schultz and Gary Becker. This theory posited that education is a form of investment, akin to physical investments, that individuals deliberately make today, not for the sake of current enjoyment but mostly for the expectation of higher wage earnings in the future. The assumption is that highly educated individuals earn more in the labour market compared to their less educated counterparts.
Within this theory individual’s decision to pursue education is influenced by the cost-benefit analysis, which is the comparison of the total costs of education today (including the opportunity costs) and the present value of future earnings. The assumption is that provided the expectation of future earnings outweighs the current costs of education, individuals would opt to study.
Responses from graduates in Somaliland, however, reveal that motivations to pursue university education are multidimensional and are influenced by a wide range of factors not limited to future earnings considerations, as the discussion below show.
Better employment outcomes after graduation
The hope for improved employment outcomes opportunities was one of the top three motivations that propelled graduates to pursue university education. Graduates noted that they believed university education was going to give them access to jobs in the formal sector that they would not otherwise get.
A comparison of sectors of employment that graduates were found to work in with sectors that a comparative sample of non-university graduates (henceforth, non-graduates) worked in does indeed support graduates’ belief. My findings suggest that university graduates are indeed more likely to be working in formal sectors (i.e. education institutions, the government, and in organisations linked to the humanitarian, aid and development industry) compared to non-graduates. In fact, during interviews non-graduates frequently noted that they could not even look for a job because they lacked a university degree. A 28-year old secondary school graduate noted during interview:
“You need a university degree to get a job. Everywhere you go, they ask you, do you have a university degree?”
Although the data suggest employment outcomes of university graduates are indeed better than that of non-graduates, an in-depth analysis of graduates’ employment history reveals that the picture is far from simple. A large proportion of graduates in the sample were found to be working in the education sector as teachers and administrators. Owing to the rapid expansion of the education sector across all levels (primary, secondary and university), the education sector has been an important source of employment for university graduates. Graduates mostly work as teachers in primary and secondary schools. It is also common practice for university graduates who finish at the top of their classes (based on Grade Point Average) to become university lecturers within their respective faculties.
A franchise branch of Addis Ababa university advertising its courses in the streets of Hargeisa.
Although the education sector has been an important employer of graduates, jobs in this sector are highly casual with insufficient working hours and limited employment guarantees. The majority of teachers across all levels (including at universities) are employed on a part-time basis and agreements are often on per-term and per-class basis with limited employment guarantees. It is thus not uncommon for graduates working in the education sector to hold multiple teaching jobs across different schools (and universities) to accrue enough hours to supplement their incomes.
During interviews graduates were asked to reflect whether going to university had indeed improved their employment outcomes. Overwhelmingly, 84 percent of all interviewed graduates responded affirmatively. Interestingly, this group also contained graduates who did not manage to secure a job since graduation. It also included graduates who were unemployed at the time the interview was taking place.
There is a puzzle here. If post-graduation employment outcomes of some of these graduates have not been positive, why did they still believe university education had improved their labour market outcomes?
During research two observations were made. First, since graduates and non-graduates alike widely believed that without a university degree a person cannot even look for a job, the fact that graduates had attained a university degree was enough for them to perceive that their labour market outcomes had indeed improved. For having a university degree was better than not having one. Here, the actual act of having a job was less relevant. In fact, getting a job was believed to be subject to the individual’s luck or nasiib. A crucial point here is that if nasiib does befall a graduate, then he or she is more likely to be recruited than someone without a degree.
Second, it also became evident during interviews that graduates could not separate the wider social benefits associated with university education from the strict economic benefits. There was a tendency for graduates to refer to the social benefits, such as getting “respect”, “name” and “trust” from the community, when asked to reflect whether their employment outcomes had improved as a result of attaining a university degree.
However, since finding employment in the Somaliland context is closely linked to an individual’s social connections, then perhaps social benefits of university education cannot realistically be divorced from economic ones.
The hope of improved social standing
The hope of improved social standing was another important motivation that pushed graduates to start their university studies. Graduates noted that they pursued university education because they wanted to be “educated” and noted a wide range of attributes that they associated with the “educated” individual. The following excerpts capture some of graduates’ responses.
“When you are educated, you are respected in the community. Your own family also respects you.”
“When you are educated your value in the community increases.”
“An educated person is listened to when he speaks. People trust him.”
“An educated person has a name in the community.”
Graduates used words such sumcad, sharaf, and akhlaaq wanaag – words associated with having a “good reputation”, “dignity” and “good behaviour” to describe the educated person. Other words such ixtiraam, kalsoon, qaddarin, and magac were used to describe how the educated individual is “respected”, “trusted”, “valued” and has a “name” in the community.
Although it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what being “educated” means, especially since the above attributes can also be found in individuals without university degrees, it is clear that there is a high social value attached to this level of education in Somaliland. Within the Somali context in general, there is a wide range of socially constructed meanings attached to the “educated” person. For instance, the Somali word for education or knowledge, aqoon, is associated with the word iftin or “light”. And those without education are considered to be living in the dark. A popular Somali saying goes aqoon la’an waa iftin la’an roughly translating as “the absence of knowledge is the absence of light”.
It is important to note here that while being educated is indeed valued in the Somali society, the relative value accorded to different types of education (or knowledge in the wider sense) have varied significantly over time. For example, whilst Islamic knowledge has enjoyed a long history, western-style secular education has struggled to gain acceptance and value in the Somali society. It was not until the benefits associated with secular education (such as access to employment in the colonial apparatus and later in the Somali state bureaucracy) became visible, that the value and status of this type of education ascended.
A branch of Mount Kenya university located in downtown Hargeisa.
A point to note here is that in contrast to Islamic knowledge, being “educated” in a western sense of the word is associated with tangible benefits. The value of this type of education is thus closely tied with the ability of the educated individual to translate their knowledge into resources that can be utilised not only by the individual but also the wider kin. It is thus not university education per se that is the source of the social status, but rather resources that this level of education is expected to bring.
Here, in contrast to Islamic scholars or Wadaado, who have been able to maintain status and respect accorded to them over long periods of time, attaining a university degree may only provide an individual with status and standing in society for a short period of time. Maintaining this status in the longer term requires the translation of university degree into tangible resources. This could be a challenge if a graduate is not able to secure employment.
‘I did not have anything else to do’
Avoiding “doing nothing” was another important factor that graduates recalled to have influenced their decision to start university. Some graduates noted that there was nothing for them to do after finishing secondary education. The excerpt below captures a dilemma that one graduate recalled to have faced after graduating from secondary school.
“When you finish secondary school, there are two choices. You go to university or you do nothing. You cannot do nothing … how can you do nothing?”
Not having something else to do as a motivation to pursue university education largely reflects the limited employment opportunities available to young people in Somaliland. According to a Labour Force Survey carried out in Somaliland in 2012, youth employment in Somaliland stood at about 5 percent. Older individuals are also faced with the same dilemma since only about 23 percent of the working age population in Somaliland was employed in 2012.
Within this environment university education can be seen as a suitable alternative to productive employment. This is particularly crucial since not doing anything, especially for men, is not socially desirable. It is better to pursue university education than to do nothing even though this might only be a mere three or four years postponement of the inevitable. After graduation, individuals may be faced with a similar dilemma, though the growing post-graduate studies sector might provide another alternative for those who can afford it.
The higher education sector in Somaliland is growing rapidly. Part of this growth is driven by the prevailing high demand for university education. This brief article looked at the top three motivations that were reported by graduates to have been key in formulating their decision to pursue university education. Graduates’ responses revealed that a wide range of factors influenced the demand for university education. Although the hope for better employment outcomes was reported by graduates to have been an important motivating factor, the culturally constructed meanings associated with the “educated” person also played a crucial role in shaping their decisions to pursue university education. Furthermore, given the high levels of unemployment amongst the working age population and particularly within the youth population, not having something else to do was also reported to have been a factor behind the demand for university education.
Nimo-ilhan Ali is a doctoral researcher at SOAS University of London. Her PhD thesis titled “Rethinking the Higher Education-Development Nexus: The Case of Somaliland” examined the expansion of higher education sector in Somaliland and what graduates do after completing their studies. Nimo has also been researching wider youth issues in the region, in particular the opportunities and challenges young people face in accessing education, employment as well as the phenomenon of “tahriib” (youth emigration).
Ali, Nimo-ilhan (2016). Rethinking the Higher Education-Development Nexus: The Case of Somaliland (PhD thesis). London: SOAS University of London.
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